Book Review

The Matzah Ball

The Matzah Ball

  • Author: Jean Melzer
  • Genre: Romance
  • Publication Date: September 28, 2021
  • Publisher: Harlequin Audio

CONTENT WARNING: mention of death of a parent, mention of infidelity, mention of cancer, mention of divorce, grief, mention of antisemitism, mention of suicidal thoughts, mention of the Holocaust

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Oy! to the world

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is a nice Jewish girl with a shameful secret: she loves Christmas. For a decade she’s hidden her career as a Christmas romance novelist from her family. Her talent has made her a bestseller even as her chronic illness has always kept the kind of love she writes about out of reach.

But when her diversity-conscious publisher insists she write a Hanukkah romance, her well of inspiration suddenly runs dry. Hanukkah’s not magical. It’s not merry. It’s not Christmas. Desperate not to lose her contract, Rachel’s determined to find her muse at the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration on the last night of Hanukkah, even if it means working with her summer camp archenemy—Jacob Greenberg.

Though Rachel and Jacob haven’t seen each other since they were kids, their grudge still glows brighter than a menorah. But as they spend more time together, Rachel finds herself drawn to Hanukkah—and Jacob—in a way she never expected. Maybe this holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze.

This book has been all the rage in the Jewish circles on social media, to the point where my mother, who isn’t much of a reader, has suggested that I pick it up. Little did she know that it was already on my radar … and my library hold list. 

This books reads like a love letter to Judaism. Words can’t express how happy it made me to hear the traditions, foods, and songs that I grew up with sprinkled throughout the story. And it shares the reality of being Jewish in America, a country that is incredibly focused on celebrating Christmas, while also focusing on the simple joy that is found in Judaism. 

Rachel was such an intriguing character, and I found myself identifying with her on such a deep level. Much of it was the fact that she struggles with an invisible disability, which was portrayed so incredibly well. The author explores the physical, mental, and emotional impact of Rachel’s illness, and how it affects all areas of her life. I could see so much of my own experience in Rachel’s story, and it was a truly beautiful thing to see this in books. Rachel is constantly torn between wanting to do what she wants and needs to, her own self-care, and paying the price for simple actions. I especially found the energy balancing to be highly accurate.

Rachel is also torn between her own desires and the needs of her community. As the daughter of a highly influential rabbi in the Jewish community, she’s under a lot of pressure to conform to social expectations. Attending services does involve a lot of standing and sitting, which is so difficult for people with disabilities. While there are exceptions made for sick people, the line gets blurred when the disability is invisible. And I could completely understand Rachel’s desire to sit in the back of temple. 

Her other secret is that she adores Christmas. Enough so that she’s made a highly successful secret career, under a pen name of course, of writing Christmas romances. So when her publisher pushes her to write a Hanukkah romance, she’s absolutely flabbergasted, and a little outraged. She just doesn’t see the magic in the Jewish holiday, although she does appreciate the holiday for what it is. 

“How could she explain it to this well-meaning and good intentioned group of non-Jewish folks? There was a reason no one had ever written a Hanukkah romance before. Jews didn’t throw dreidel decorating parties. They didn’t hold latke making competitions. You couldn’t wrap a blue ribbon around a squirming Labrador puppy and leave it beneath the menorah for the children to find. Labrador puppies would get burned that way. Indeed if her publisher wanted a true and honest look at Hanukkah in the American Jewish community, it would be two nights worth of semi-decent presents followed by six nights worth of school supplies.”

Enter Jacob — the guy who broke her heart many years ago at Camp Ahava (Hebrew for love, ironically). When he decides to host his Matzah Ball Max in Manhattan and enlists her parents to light the menorah, Rachel decides that scoring a ticket to this sold out event is essential to writing her newest book. But Jacob himself is struggling with some heavy internal issues relating to his family life and upbringing. However, he’s still such an awesome character. And hot:

“Rachel stood in the entryway of her parents house, surprise registering in the form of two raised eyebrows. The six foot tall Semitic Adonis that stood in the kitchen had met her frantic arrival with an unwavering gaze. It was impossible. Unimaginable really. Jacob Greenberg was smoking hot.”

“Gone was the little boy from Camp Ahava that Rachel remembered. Jacob Greenberg had morphed into a full-grown and totally kosher stud muffin.”

So much of the growth in the story comes from Toby, Jacob’s grandmother. She’s a Holocaust survivor, and offers gentle advice and encouragement to both Rachel and Jacob. I adored her perspective, her spunky personality, and her bright spirit — along with her wild sense of wanderlust! Everyone should be blessed to have a Toby in their life, offering her love and compassion:

“We can be someone who snuffs out another persons candle and in the process makes the world a darker place. Or we can be the type of person who spreads light. Better to be the shamash. One candle that lights all the others and brightens an otherwise dark world.”

Even with the heavy subject matter that comes up throughout the story, it’s such a funny book. I laughed out loud so many times. I am absolutely loving the trend of finding Jewish traditions in mainstream books, and the audiobook was fabulous! Although now I’m left with a craving for rugalech like nobody’s business. This is one of the most fun books i’ve read this year, and I highly recommend it!

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