Matzah balls are soft and filling and satisfying in warm soup. However, “The Matzah Ball” by Jean Meltzer might better be compared to the rugalach that her characters love to nosh on, sweet and sometimes nutty, but made with love (and honesty) and with a texture that melts in your mouth. This story is filled with lots of love in the best tradition of any romance novel, but it’s also much more. Meltzer provides us with an inside look at a main character who is strong and successful, and at the same times struggles with a chronic disease.
How do you find love when you’re too ill to work a “normal” job? With myalgic encephalomyelitis, or what is commonly referred to as “chronic fatigue syndrome,” Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt simply cannot do what others can. And seriously? The name “chronic fatigue syndrome” is, according to author Meltzer (through Rachel’s narrative), “the most trivializing name for a disease in the entire world. The equivalent of calling Alzheimer’s ‘Senior Moment Syndrome.”‘ Meltzer goes on to share what having this disease entails: “crushing fatigue, migraines, brain fog or weirdo pains…25 percent of patients who found themselves bed-bound or homebound—existing on feeding tubes, unable to leave dark rooms for years—or the 75 percent of patients who could no longer work full-time.”
Meltzer is an expert at describing this chronic disease, because she, like Rachel, has it. And Rachel, like Meltzer, is a writer. Rachel, unlike Meltzer is the author of Christmas romances, and she’s very successful. The only catch is that because her father is the rabbi of a very prestigious conservative temple, a rabbi known around the world for his wisdom, she has been raised to understand that their family is constantly under a microscope. As the rabbi’s daughter, Rachel is expected to be a perfect Jewish daughter. Loving Christmas is not okay. And when Rachel innocently asked her father about a Jew like Irving Berlin creating songs that have become Christmas traditions, like White Christmas, he shared his thoughts. So Rachel never told her parents that she was the successful author of Christmas romances, some of which were made into movies. When asked her occupation, she vaguely says that she’s a freelance editor and writer. So while the whole world knows and loves holiday author Margot Cross, no one suspects that Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is that person.
This Hanukkah is going to be different. Rachel’s first love from Jewish summer camp, Jacob Greenberg, is coming into New York from his home in Paris to orchestrate a huge Hanukkah Matzah Ball. Interestingly, Meltzer’s Matzah Ball is based on the real Matzo Balls that are thrown during Christmastime for single Jews in search of something to do on Christmas. For around 40 years, the Matzo Balls have spread and grown, and this fictional Matzah Ball is based in that reality. Who knew? Not I.
So Jacob is in town to prepare for his most daring event ever, the Matzah Ball Max. The other events which made him a wealthy party planner included parties on islands and at beaches, where because of influencers and the ultra-rich and social media, his success has been assured. A New York winter party isn’t prone to providing the same beautiful photos as a glamorous island with bikini-clad women on lounge chairs sipping mojitos. Jacob has never forgotten Rachel, even though she dumped him during that summer at their Jewish summer camp without a word and disappeared. He’s called her parents because he wants her famous (in Jewish circles) father to light the last Hanukkah candle at the Matzah Ball Max. Getting to see Rachel at their home during Shabbat dinner is a plus. So he’s perplexed when Rachel begs him for a ticket to the Matzah Ball Max and won’t tell him why she needs it.
Rachel is desperate. Now that her writing contract is up, her publishers are demanding that she write a Hanukkah romance or they will not renew her. She’s panicking because while Christmas is magical, with Santa and sleigh bells and scented wreaths, Hanukkah is just dreidels, latkes, and a menorah. No magic, no wonder, no romance. How will she possibly write a romance around a holiday so lacking in fantasy? Her only hope is to attend the Matzah Ball Max and use it as the basis for her story. So can she persuade Jacob, who was her crush at summer camp and then completely humiliated her, to give her a ticket?
The plot isn’t especially creative, but in some ways, romances are all the same. We know there will be a happy ending and lots of misunderstandings from the first time the couple meet until they declare their love for each other. What makes a romance stand out is all the in-between: the setting, the personalities of the characters, the type of problems they face. And it’s in this in-between that Meltzer’s writing stands out.
We learn about ME/CFS (her disease) and we admire Rachel for her fortitude and her determination to live life as fully as possible. Because of her illness, she is more thoughtful and kind to those who also are different and have physical problems that might cause others to devalue them. How many of us treat those who are different in a dismissive manner, ignoring them or not interacting with them because we don’t know how or are afraid of embarrassing ourselves? Rachel’s kindness, her loyalty to her best friend Mickey, her thoughtfulness are all extremely endearing. Even her secrecy regarding her profession is based on not wanting to upset her parents or embarrass her father with his congregation. She’s a real mensch. But in spite of what Rachel thinks, we come to find out that Jacob is a real mensch, also. And perhaps these two mensches deserve each other.
This holiday romance will go down as easily as a perfectly made matzah ball. It will sweeten your day like a chocolate-filled piece of rugalach. But be warned: it will also cause you to crave Chinese food because Chinese food and movies are Jewish staples during Christmas, and the characters all partake liberally of Kung Pao Chicken and spring rolls over the course of the book. Really.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.