“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 bestselling author 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 the holiday of lights will be the spark she needed to set her heart ablaze.”
-Synopsis from back of the book
The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer is one of my favorite books this year.
As soon as I read the synopsis, I knew that I had to read this book. I haven’t read many books with Jewish representation. I know that they exist, but they aren’t exactly lining the shelves at bookstores. I was thrilled to see not only was this a Jewish book, but that it had such a relatable concept: a Jewish girl who also loves Christmas. It’s true that Hanukkah isn’t as flashy of a holiday as Christmas and I know from personal experience how hard it can be to see everyone in the Christmas spirit and knowing that it’s not the same with Hanukkah.
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt and Jacob Greenberg are a perfect match, but they don’t realize it at first. They both have so much to overcome with their pasts, including what happened at their summer camp almost twenty years ago. Their feud may seem silly, based on childhood pranks gone wrong, but beneath it are very real insecurities that they both have about themselves, their ability to love and be loved, and their willingness to trust others.
Through the course of the story, which takes place over the eight days of Hanukkah, Rachel and Jacob have to prove to each other and themselves that they are worth the love they deserve and that they can give each other that if they are honest enough with themselves.
An important aspect of this book is Rachel’s chronic illness. Jean Meltzer has shared that Rachel’s experiences with CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) are based on her own. While it is a spectrum disease, Rachel’s case is more severe than others and it greatly impacts her quality of life. I think she has painted an accurate portrait for the reader of what it is like to not be able to participate in regular daily life due to this chronic illness.
There are so many wonderful minor characters in this story, from Rachel’s best friend Mickey, to Jacob’s bubbe Toby who always shows up at the right moment, with the right words. She shares her wisdom with Rachel, based on a lifetime of experiences both good and bad. Hanukkah holds so much meaning, and Toby shows Rachel how to see it in new ways.
“But what I always explained to Jacob is that these candles are a metaphor. They remind us that we always have a choice. We can be someone who snuffs out another person’s candle and, in the process, makes the world a darker place. Or we can be the type of person who spreads the light. Better to be the shamash – one candle that lights all the others and brightens an otherwise dark world.”from The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer
As funny and entertaining as this story was, there were many deeper messages about the meaning of Jewish holidays and the strength of the Jewish people, and how their history has persevered. I couldn’t stop marking quotes in the book that I wanted to remember, including this one.
“Truth could be scary. Darkness might always endeavor to snuff out the light, but the strength of those who truly loved us would always push us forward. This was how we brightened an otherwise dark world. We filled it with truth, and love, and light.”from The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer
I had high hopes for this book and they were exceeded and then some! It’s definitely in my top ten reads for this year. I’m also happy to know that Jean Meltzer has another book coming out in 2022!