The Matzah Ball
by Jean Meltzer
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Publisher: MIRA Books
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.
She just needed one more.
Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt stared at the collection of miniature Christmas figurines spread across her desk. She owned 236 of the smiling porcelain Santas from the world-famous Holiday Dreams Collection. When her best friend, Mickey, arrived, she would complete that collection with the addition of the coveted Margaritaville Santa.
Oh, the Margaritaville Santa. How she had dreamed of the day when that tiny porcelain Santa, in a Hawaiian shirt and wear-ing Ray-Ban sunglasses, would sit atop her prized collection.
Rachel had scoured eBay for the tiny limited-edition figurine, set up price alerts and left frantic (somewhat drunken) posts at three in the morning on collector blogs. Now, after six years, five months and seven days of hunting, the Margaritaville Santa would finally be hers.
The anxiety was killing her.
Rachel glanced out the window of her apartment. It was snowing outside. Gentle flakes fell down onto Broadway and made New York City feel magical. She was wondering when Mickey would actually get here when there was a knock at the door.
“Finally!” Rachel said. Excitement bubbled up inside her as she raced to the front door, throwing it open. And then, disappointment. Her mother stood in the threshold.
“I was in the neighborhood,” she said, a perfectly innocent smile spread across her two round cheeks.
Her mother was always in the neighborhood.
It was one of the downsides of living on the Upper West Side while her mother, a top New York fertility specialist, worked out of Columbia Hospital just ten blocks away.
Rachel had to think quickly. She loved her mother, and was even willing to entertain her completely intrusive and unannounced visits, but the door to her home office was still open.
“Mickey’s about to stop by,” Rachel warned.
“I won’t be but a minute,” her mother said, lifting up a plastic bag from Ruby’s Smoked Fish Shop as a peace offering. “I brought you some dinner.”
Dr. Rubenstein pushed her way inside, letting her fingers graze the mezuzah on Rachel’s doorpost before entering. Making her way straight to the refrigerator, she began unloading “dinner.”
There was a large vat of chopped liver, two loaves of pum-pernickel bread, three different types of rugalach. Dr. Ruben-stein believed in feeding the people you love, and the love she had for her daughter was likely to end in heart disease.
“How are you feeling?” her mother inquired.
“Fine,” Rachel said, using the opportunity to close her office door.
Dr. Rubenstein looked up from the refrigerator. Her eyes rolled from Rachel’s hair, matted and clumped, down to her wrinkled pink pajamas.
She frowned. “You look pale.”
“I am pale,” Rachel reminded her.
“Rachel,” her mother said pointedly, “you need to take your myalgic encephalomyelitis seriously.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. Outside, the gentle snow was gathering into a full-blown storm.
Dr. Rubenstein was probably one of the few people who called Rachel’s disease by its medical term, the name research scientists and experts preferred, describing the complex mul-tisystem disease that affected her neurological, immune, autonomic and metabolic systems. Most everyone else in the world knew it by the simple and distasteful moniker chronic fatigue syndrome.
Which was, quite possibly, the most trivializing name for a disease in the entire world. The equivalent of calling Alzheimer’s “Senior Moment Syndrome.”
It did not begin to remotely describe the crushing fatigue, migraines, brain fog or weirdo pains that Rachel lived with daily. It certainly did not describe the 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.
For now, however, Rachel was one of the lucky ones. She had managed to graduate college with a degree in creative writing and, over the last decade, build a career working from home.
“Ema,” Rachel said, growing frustrated. “My body, my choice.”
“Change the topic.”
Dr. Rubenstein pressed her lips together and swallowed the words on her tongue. It was not an easy feat for the woman. “And how’s work?”
“Good.” Rachel shrugged, returning to the couch. “Noth-ing that interesting to report.”
“And the freelance work you’re doing—” her mother craned her neck to peep around her apartment “—it’s keeping you busy?”
Dr. Rubenstein raised one eyebrow in her daughter’s di-rection.
Rachel knew what her mother was really asking. How can you afford a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side simply by doing freelance editorial work? But Dr. Rubenstein had learned an important halachic lesson from her husband, Rabbi Aaron Goldblatt, early on in their marriage; you don’t ask questions you don’t really want the answers to.
For all Rachel knew, her mother believed her to be a web-cam girl. Or a high-class prostitute. Or the mistress of some dashingly handsome Arabian prince. All of which, Rachel was certain, would be preferable to what she actually did for a living.
“Ema,” Rachel said, steering the conversation away from her career. “What is it you’re really here for?”
“Why do you always think I have an ulterior motive, Rachel?”
“Because I know you.”
“All right!” Dr. Rubenstein threw her hands up into the air. “You caught me. I do have an ulterior motive.”
“Now, it’s nothing bad, I promise,” her mother said, taking a seat on her couch. “I simply wanted to see if you were available for Shabbat dinner this Friday?”
There it was. The real reason for her mother’s visit. Shab-bat at Rabbi Goldblatt’s house was not just a weekly religious occurrence, it was a chance for Dr. Rubenstein to kidnap her daughter for twenty-five hours straight and force her to meet single Jewish men.
Over the years, there had been all sorts of horrible setups. There was the luxury auto dealer who used his sleeve as a napkin during dinner. The rabbinical student who spent an entire Saturday afternoon debating aloud with only her father over what to do when an unkosher meatball falls into a pot of kosher meatballs.
And then, there was her favorite blind date setup of them all. Dovi, the Israeli mountain climber, who had traveled the world in his perfectly healthy and functioning body, before telling Rachel that he didn’t think chronic fatigue syndrome was a real disease.
Rachel had no intention of spending another Friday night, and Saturday afternoon, entertaining her mother’s idea of a dreamboat. Especially not when that dreamboat had the word Titanic embroidered across the bottom of their knitted kippah.
“No,” Rachel said.
“Rachel!” her mother pleaded. “Just hear me out.”
“I’m too busy, Ema.”
“But you haven’t been home in ages!”
“You live in Long Island,” Rachel shot back. “I see you and Daddy all the time.”
Her mother could not argue with this factoid.
“Jacob Greenberg will be coming,” her mother finally said. Rachel nearly choked on her tongue. “What?”
“You remember Jacob Greenberg?”
The question sounded so innocent on the surface. Jacob Greenberg. How could Rachel forget the name? The duo had spent one summer together at Camp Ahava in the Berkshires before the seventh grade.
“Jacob Greenberg?” Rachel spit back. “The psychopath who spent an entire summer pulling my hair and pushing me into the lake?”
“I recall you two getting along quite well at one point.”
“He set me up in front of everyone, Mom. He turned my first kiss into a giant Camp Ahava prank!”
“He was twelve!” Dr. Rubenstein was on her feet now. “Twelve, Rachel. You can’t hold a grown man accountable for something he did as a child. For heaven’s sake… The boy hadn’t even had his bar mitzvah.”
Rachel could feel the red rising in her cheeks. A wellspring of complicated emotions rose up inside her. Hate and love. Confusion and excitement. Just hearing his name again after all these years brought Rachel smack-dab back to her ado-lescence. And sitting there beside all those terrible memories of him humiliating her were the good ones. Rachel couldn’t help herself. She drifted back to that summer.
The way it felt to hold his hand in secret. The realiza-tion that there was more to their relationship than just dumb pranks and dead bugs left in siddurs. Jacob had gotten Rachel to open up. She had trusted him. Showed him a side of herself reserved for a select few. Aside from Mickey, she had never been so honest with anybody in her entire life.
Dr. Rubenstein dismissed her daughter’s concerns with a small wave of the hand. “It was eighteen years ago. Don’t you think you’re being a tad ridiculous?”
“Me?” Rachel scoffed. “You’re the one who’s hosting my summer camp archenemy for Shabbat.”
“He’s in town from Paris for some big event he’s throwing. What would you have me do—not invite him?”
“While you’re at it, don’t forget to invite Dana Shoshan-ski. She made me cry every day in third grade. In fact, let me get you a list of all the people who made fun of me for being Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt growing up. I want to make sure you don’t miss anybody.”
Her mother did not blink. “I’m sorry it was hard for you…being our daughter.”
Just like that, her mother had twisted all those feelings back around on her.
Rachel bit back her words, looking up to the ceiling. She loved her parents more than anything in the world. They had been there for her at every stage of her life, doting and won-derful. Still, the Rubenstein-Goldblatt name came with pres-sures. They were pressures that, even as an adult, still managed to follow her.
A knock at the door drew their attention away.
“Let me get that for you,” Dr. Rubenstein said sweetly, ris-ing from the couch.
“Ho, ho, ho-oooooooh… .” Mickey said, standing at the door, his smile fading into panic. He was holding a medium-sized red gift bag in the air. He glanced at Rachel, who sig-naled the immediate danger by running one finger across her throat. Quickly Mickey hid the bag behind his back.
“Dr. Rubenstein!” he said, his eyes wide. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Not to worry, Mickey,” Dr. Rubenstein said, adjusting her scarf. “I was just getting ready to leave.” She turned back to her daughter one last time. “Just think about coming to din-ner, okay? Daddy and I won’t be around forever, and there may come a time in your life when you miss spending Shab-bat at your parents’ house.”
Mickey waited for the door to shut firmly behind him and the elevator at the end of the hall to ding before turning to his best friend. “Whoa,” he said. “That woman is a pro when it comes to Jewish guilt.”
“Tell me about it,” Rachel said, collapsing on the couch.“So what did our fine rebbetzin want this evening?” Mickey asked, taking his boots and jacket off at the front door.
“You’ll never believe it if I tell you.”
To everyone that knew them, it seemed that Mickey and Rachel had been bashert, soul mates, since time immemorial, having met at Camp Ahava when they were eight years old.
Since Rachel couldn’t be sure what drew the pair together, she assumed it had something to do with how other people at their camp had treated them. Mikael, the adopted son of a powerhouse lesbian couple from Manhattan, was Black. And Rachel, as everyone who met her cared to remind her, was the daughter of Rabbi Aaron Goldblatt. The Rabbi Aaron Goldblatt.
Whether they liked it or not, when Mickey and Rachel walked into a room, people noticed them. People watched them. This shared experience formed the basis of their com-radery and, later, extended far beyond Jewish summer camp.
“She wanted to set me up with Jacob Greenberg,” Rachel said.
Mickey finished pulling off his boots. “Jacob Greenberg? From Camp Ahava?”
“The one and only.”
“Wow,” Mickey said, coming over to sit beside Rachel. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in forever. Didn’t he give you mono?”
Rachel squeezed her eyes shut. She did not want to think about that first kiss with Jacob Greenberg. “Can we seriously not talk about this right now? I’ve waited seven long years for this moment, Mickey…and just like some of the other most important moments of my life, Jacob Greenberg is ruining it.”
“You’re right,” Mickey said, laying the red bag on the coffee table between them. “And I have just the thing to take your mind off He Who Shall Not Be Named.”
This was it. The moment she had waited for. With eager fingers, Rachel reached into the bag, pulled out the tiny fig-urine and gently removed the plastic bubble wrapping that protected it.
It was even better than she had imagined.
Excerpted from The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer,
Copyright © 2021 by Jean Meltzer.
Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Author Jean Meltzer studied dramatic writing at NYU Tisch, and served as creative director at Tapestry International, garnering numerous awards for her work in television, including a daytime Emmy. Like her protagonist, Jean is also a chronically-ill and disabled Jewish woman. She is an outspoken advocate for ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), has attended visibility actions in Washington DC, meeting with members of Senate and Congress to raise funds for ME/CFS. She inspires 9,000 followers on WW Connect to live their best life, come out of the chronic illness closet, and embrace the hashtag #chronicallyfabulous. Also, while she was raised in what would be considered a secular home, she grew up kosher and attended Hebrew School. She spent five years in Rabbinical School.