The Matzah Ball

By – February 11, 2022

Rachel Ruben­stein-Gold­blatt has a few secrets. She has a chron­ic dis­ease that no one knows about except her par­ents, her best friend, and her long-time crush, Jacob, a boy from sum­mer camp who broke her heart years before. Rachel still bears an active grudge against Jacob, which does lit­tle more than keep him an ongo­ing part of her life.

But Rachel’s biggest secret of all is part­ly pro­fes­sion­al, part­ly per­son­al, and alto­geth­er huge; she is a Jew­ish woman (the daugh­ter of a rab­bi, no less) who makes her liv­ing writ­ing best-sell­ing roman­tic nov­els, and they are all about Christ­mas. She has a large col­lec­tion of Christ­mas items – dec­o­ra­tions, nov­el­ties, any­thing she can find. She rev­els in her for­bid­den col­lec­tion and obsess­es over the joys of her con­tra­band world. Rachel’s books are so suc­cess­ful that they have been turned into Hall­mark movies, and her pen name is well-known among Christ­mas romance afi­ciona­dos everywhere.

In spite of her astound­ing com­mer­cial suc­cess and her giant, beloved col­lec­tion, Rachel’s secret life as a Christ­mas-lover has nev­er been exposed. She is con­vinced that she will be able to main­tain her promi­nent posi­tion in the pub­lish­ing world and that the peo­ple in her per­son­al life will nev­er con­nect her to any of it. Then, to her sur­prise, her pub­lish­er informs her that her Christ­mas books are no longer need­ed; diver­si­ty is called for so, instead, they want her to write a romance nov­el with a Hanukkah theme.

Hanukkah? In spite of Rachel’s back­ground, Hanukkah has nev­er excit­ed her. Can she ful­fill the pub­lish­ers’ request and write that book? Where’s the sparkle, the excite­ment, the romance? But if she wants her career to remain on track, she knows she needs to find some Hanukkah inspiration.

Enter Jacob Green­berg, the boy who broke her heart at Camp Aha­va so long ago. He is now in the process of throw­ing an immense, glis­ten­ing, exclu­sive Hanukkah par­ty that he has named the Matzah Ball. Rachel feels that attend­ing the Matzah Ball might – just might – pro­vide her with the cre­ative spark she needs in order to begin to write her promised new novel.

Get­ting a tick­et for the Matzah Ball is a chal­lenge, and it means that Rachel must let Jacob back into her life. It means revis­it­ing parts of her past she has been unwill­ing to encounter. It may also mean expos­ing her vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and the close­ly-held secrets she has tak­en such pains to keep hid­den for so long. Then again, Hanukkah is the Fes­ti­val of Light; shin­ing some light into her secret places might be just what Rachel needs to turn her life around.

Meltzer’s writ­ing is both acces­si­ble and fun. The read­er fol­lows Rachel’s jour­ney and shares her fears, her embar­rass­ments, her dis­cov­er­ies, and her joys. Jew­ish life is clear­ly por­trayed, and there are some beau­ti­ful scenes cen­tered around reli­gious and cul­tur­al Jew­ish life-cycle events. The book also presents inter­est­ing and com­pelling rep­re­sen­ta­tion of those who suf­fer from chron­ic illnesses.

This sto­ry about a roman­tic nov­el with a Hanukkah theme is itself a love­ly roman­tic nov­el with a Hanukkah theme. This live­ly addi­tion to the genre enhances the hol­i­day romance shelf.

Jes­si­ca Sender is an aca­d­e­m­ic librar­i­an at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty. She has worked in pub­lic and aca­d­e­m­ic libraries, and in her free time enjoys run­ning, bik­ing, real­i­ty TV, and explor­ing Michigan. 

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jean Meltzer

  1. Though they were both raised in the Jew­ish faith, Rachel and Jacob had very dif­fer­ent upbring­ings. How do you think their child­hoods influ­enced their char­ac­ters as adults?

  2. Rachel’s fam­i­ly is Jew­ish, but she loves Christ­mas. Have you ever had an affin­i­ty for a hol­i­day or event that your fam­i­ly didn’t celebrate?

  3. What did you think of Rachel’s deci­sion to hide her career from her fam­i­ly for most of her adult life? Would you hide some­thing of impor­tance from your fam­i­ly if you felt they wouldn’t under­stand it?

  4. Rachel and Mick­ey are best friends since for­ev­er. How did you feel about the way their friend­ship was depict­ed in the sto­ry? Do you have a friend you’re as close with as they are with one anoth­er? What has that friend­ship meant to you in your life?

  5. Liv­ing with chron­ic ill­ness has affect­ed Rachel’s life in almost every way imag­in­able. What, if any­thing, did you learn about myal­gic encephalomyelitis, aka chron­ic fatigue syndrome?

  6. Rachel feels frus­trat­ed that the more com­mon­ly known term for her ill­ness, chron­ic fatigue syn­drome, comes with a cer­tain amount of stig­ma, and peo­ple don’t take it seri­ous­ly. Can you think of any oth­er con­di­tions that are treat­ed sim­i­lar­ly by the gen­er­al public?

  7. Both Rachel’s moth­er and Jacob’s bubbe tend to feed (or over­feed!) their loved ones. This is con­sid­ered a com­mon way to show affec­tion in many cul­tures, includ­ing the Jew­ish cul­ture. What are some tra­di­tions in your cul­ture, and how are they expressed in your family?

  8. Though Rachel and Jacob did not per­son­al­ly expe­ri­ence it, they are both influ­enced by the Holo­caust in sub­tle ways. What are some ways in which that influ­ence man­i­fests itself? Are there any events in your fam­i­ly his­to­ry that con­tin­ue to influ­ence you today, even though you did not direct­ly expe­ri­ence them?

  9. Rachel quotes Midrash, say­ing, God only works through bro­ken ves­sels.” What do you think Rachel means when she says this? How do Rachel and Jacob both come to accept, and cre­ate mean­ing out of, their brokenness?

  10. On Hanukkah, Jews use a shamash, one flame that lights all the can­dles on the chanukiyah. What are some of the ways that the char­ac­ters in The Matzah Ball act like a shamash, spread­ing light to others?

  11. What are some Jew­ish tra­di­tions and rit­u­als you rec­og­nized while read­ing The Matzah Ball? Was there any­thing that sur­prised you? Are there any tra­di­tions you would like to learn more about or incor­po­rate into your own life?

  12. Who was your favorite char­ac­ter and why?

  13. If you could cast the movie ver­sion of The Matzah Ball, who would you cast as the leads? How about the sec­ondary characters?