Meltzer, Jean. The Matzah Ball. Mira, 2021. ISBN 978-0778312130 400 pp. $28.99
In the Bible, it takes Jacob fourteen years of labor to win his Rachel… in the Matzah Ball, it takes over twenty. A prank-filled summer at Camp Ahava made Rachel and Jacob frenemies then sweethearts, but the fledgling relationship disintegrated into nothing when a publically staged first kiss led to Rachel’s humiliation. A good Jewish girl–daughter of a well-known Rebbe, even–she now moonlights writing very successful Christmas themed holiday romances. She still holds a grudge, years later, against Jacob, who is now a successful event planner and fundraiser, and is back in NYC to pull off a seasonal party for the Jewish population that coincides with a demand from Rachel’s editor for an authentic Hanukkah romance. The Matzah Ball is the hottest–sold out–party in town. Rachel, who lives with chronic fatigue syndrome, agrees to volunteer her time in preparing for the event to score a ticket so she can write her next novel.
The banter throughout (not just between Rachel and Jacob, but between Rachel and Jacob’s grandmother, Jacob and his right hand man Shmuel) and the humor of gentle poking fun at stereotypes strive to balance out the disdain for All Things Jewish Rachel spouts to her (gay) best friend Michael–I found it a little cringe-worthy. I didn’t want Rachel to come off as a self-hating Jew, and at the beginning, for me, she did.
The romance is well-paced, if predictable – but again, I’m not sure I loved how they talked to one another, all the time. All these years later, and they are still keeping secrets and misunderstanding intentions?! I wanted to yell at them to grow up!
I appreciated Shmuel’s definition of beshert–not soulmates, but destiny: a person who exists to complete something you lack. Like you’ve found your missing piece that makes you better than you are, that calls you on your shit. I do think it can be done more respectfully than he conveys happens with his wife, and than we experience with Rachel and Jacob: in one scene, she tells him repeatedly to stop talking. It’s a bit old-fashioned and discomforting.
Still, Melzter’s story has a heart of gold. Her author’s note at the end speaks to finding a balance in her story to appeal to Jews who love Christmas, Christmas celebrators who know nothing about Jewish practices, a sprinkling of Yiddish and halakhah, and appeal for day school kids and Hebrew school b’nei mitzvot alike. In this, she is successful.
I wanted The Matzah Ball to read like The Intimacy Experiment and Get a Life, Chloe Brown had a baby, but it didn’t achieve that level for me. Stronger editing and intimacy more on the page, than off, would have made this a 4 or 5 star book for me.
I received a free copy of #TheMatzahBall from #NetGalley.