Like her self-described “nice Jewish girl” protagonist Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, debut rom-com author Jean Meltzer has a secret: she adores Christmas.
“Every holiday season, I’d go to the library or bookstore and there would be a table filled with holiday romances,” Meltzer says. “Because of my love of Christmas, I wanted to see myself represented; I wanted to see a Hanukkah book on that table. I could envision it—a blue book in a sea of red and green.”
That vision comes to fruition with the enemies-to-lovers romance The Matzah Ball (Mira, Oct). Rachel, a bestselling Christmas romance novelist under the name Margot Cross, finds inspiration for her first Hanukkah romance at a Jewish music festival run by her former summer camp nemesis, Jacob Greenberg.
Meltzer spoke with PW about embracing and subverting a ubiquitous genre through representation.
How does your story play with holiday romance conventions?
It’s more than simply swapping out a non-Jewish character for a Jewish one. The book is authentic to the Jewish experience in 2021. In romance, there’s the concept of soulmates. In Judaism, we have a concept called beshert. It’s different in that it’s about meeting your destiny or someone who helps you fulfill your life’s calling. It was fun playing on those tropes and sharing a part of my tradition in ways that still feel familiar to the romance reader.
What were the challenges of writing a romance protagonist with a disability?
One of the cardinal rules of writing is that your characters have to be doing something, so I wasn’t sure how to write a character with ME/CFS [myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome]. I’ve been sick since I was 18, and yes, a huge part of my life has been navigating chronic illness, but it didn’t destroy my life.
When writing the first scene of The Matzah Ball, I saw Rachel in pajamas with rumpled hair, and her friend picking up a Santa Claus doll from the post office for her. I realized I was writing a character with ME/CFS. It fit together. Her secrecy and shame around Christmas is also her secrecy and shame around living with her disease. It’s a layered metaphor on acceptance and authenticity, but also visibility. One of our biggest issues in advocacy is that we’re invisible.
Did you feel the burdens of representation?
If I’m being honest, I never thought the book would get published. I thought it was far too Jewish. So there is the responsibility of representation. But I also tell myself that there isn’t one Jewish experience. I’m writing about my Jewish experience, which is as an Ashkenazi Jew growing up in the Northeast. “The Torah has 70 faces” is something we always say. There are many Jewish voices and one isn’t more valid than the other.
What are your hopes for the book?
I’m excited to introduce readers to the Jewish community I come from. There’s so much beauty and wisdom in the Jewish tradition and I’m excited to approach romance from that worldview. Whether you’re Jewish or not, there’s something to be learned in the book. For both Jews and the chronically ill, I hope they feel seen. In this wealth of human experience, we all deserve to be loved. We all deserve to have our happy ending.