The Matzah Ball introduces us to Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, a “nice Jewish girl” as described by others, who has a secret: she moonlights as the author of many successful Christmas novels. When her publisher insists that she write a Hanukkah novel instead this holiday season, she must team up with her Jewish summer-camp arch-enemy Jacob Greenberg to discover the true meaning of the season and pull off the greatest Hanukkah party, The Matzah Ball, New York City has ever seen.
Rachel is drawn to the magic of the Christmas season for a lot of reasons. She’s never really experienced what Christmas is, as pointed out by her best friend Mickey who has non-Jewish family members. It’s also partly because Christmas at its best can transport us to an almost alternate reality where all of our real-life problems are solved or forgotten, at least temporarily.
The twists and turns in this book aren’t necessarily surprising, but they’re so engaging and it makes for such a lovely, comfortable meander through Rachel and Jacob’s journey to reconnect not only with one another but with their families and ultimately with themselves. If you enjoy the pleasant roaming of Hallmark’s or Netflix’s holiday specials, this romance story is for you.
Meltzer seamlessly blends two very common Jewish experiences through her characters. Rachel is the daughter of a prominent Rabbi and Rebbitzin (Rabbi’s wife), and as many children of clergy do, experiences the overwhelming pressure of having the eyes of the community on her and her family at all times. Then there’s Jacob, who has become alienated from the larger Jewish community and is just looking to reconnect.
The Matzah Ball, for a holiday book, has one of the best slow burns I’ve read in a while and Meltzer definitely had a new, fresh take on the enemies to lovers trope. In this case, it was more of childhood enemies to lovers, to enemies, to lovers again. And in the story’s context, it just worked so well.
One of the standout elements of The Matzah Ball though was how well the author handled chronic illness through Rachel’s character who lives with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), the preferred term for what many people still know as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Meltzer is herself outspoken about her own chronic illness journey with ME that compelled her to withdraw from Rabbinical school after five years. She speaks to the fact that the illness is more than simply being tired and encompasses every aspect of the patient’s life every single day.
Meltzer so effectively captures the experience of living with an illness that’s invisible to the naked and untrained eye but wreaks havoc on patients the world over. It was so sad to hear Rachel try to defend herself immediately when disclosing her illness by automatically telling people not to tell her it’s not a real illness. This response tells the reader that Rachel has had to hear this completely invalidating response so many times, and that’s just so heartbreaking. Meltzer issues a challenge to readers to confront our own conceptions about illness and disability, especially those that we can’t see at first glance.
As pleasant of a read as this book is, it’s far from perfect. Most obvious, it was definitely not cool of the author to equate coming out as gay as Rachel’s best friend Micky did at a young age, with recognizing her own truth as a Jewish woman who enjoys Christmas. These just aren’t equitable at all, and the experiences of the LGBTQ+ acknowledging the truth of their identities to their families and entire communities should never be trivialized.
Ultimately though, this was a story about love and connections lost and found again. It takes the reader on a comfort journey that asks us all, what are we hiding and how can we reconnect with ourselves in a meaningful way. The satisfying, if the predictable conclusion was a worthy end to a lovely respite from the stress that this time of year can bring to so many.
It is a quintessential Jewish comfort read, sure to make readers everywhere crave the lights of Chanukiyot against the darkness of the winter months. We can only hope Meltzer and other Jewish authors continue telling distinctly Jewish holiday stories since there are so many to tell.
The Matzah Ball is available now.