Off the Shelf: Looking for romance

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A recipe for romance novels: 1) Take two insecure people who are attracted to each other. 2) Have them each believe the other can’t possibly be interested. 3) Mix in several misunderstandings and at least one major crisis. 4) Stir until you have a happy ending. 

This oversimplification explains why people like to read romance novels: while life may be uncertain and scary, these works always reward you with a happy ending. That’s true of two recent romance novels that feature Jewish characters: “The Matzah Ball” by Jean Meltzer (Mira) and “I Kissed a Girl” by Jennet Alexander (Sourcebooks Casablanca). Additional pleasures abound: both contain copious amounts of humor, but also manage to discuss serious subjects without ruining the fun.

“The Matzah Ball” features two characters who’ve had a grudge against each other since Jewish overnight camp. Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt thinks Jacob Greenberg pretended to care for her in order to publicly embarrass her in front of his bunkmates. Jacob believes that Rachel deliberately stood him up at the camp dance. The two have not seen each other since then, but they are thrown together when Rachel needs an invitation to the Matzah Ball, the fancy Hanukkah party Jacob is producing. 

Although proudly Jewish, Rachel makes her living writing Christmas romances under a pen name. In fact, Rachel is so in love with Christmas that she’s filled her carefully locked home office with Christmas decorations and 236 porcelain Santa Clauses. Unfortunately, at her latest meeting with her publishers, Rachel learns Christmas romances are no longer selling well; this time, they want her to write a Hanukkah romance. At a loss since she never considered Hanukkah a romantic holiday, Rachel learns of the Matzah Ball and realizes Jacob is the key to getting a ticket. However, she can’t tell him why she needs a ticket because her family and community have no idea she writes Christmas romances. Rachel and Jacob are still attracted to each other, though, but coming together is not easy: misunderstandings abound and goodwill attempts to reconnect backfire – that is, of course, until the end of the book.

What makes the “The Matzah Ball” stand out, though, is that Rachel suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, something she hides from her agent and publisher. She’s been faced with doctors who are unfamiliar with her condition and people who don’t believe her illness is real. Anyone looking at her would think she is in perfect health, which makes life that much harder. Meltzer beautifully captures Rachel’s feelings: “She wanted what so many others had, what everyone standing around her parents’ Shabbat table seemed to take for granted. She wanted normalcy. She wanted a career and a family and the ability to walk around a museum for two hours without her body punishing her for it. But Rachel couldn’t allow herself to think about the future. It was too scary and gray, too terribly overwhelming. She had learned to survive by just focusing on the day. Focusing all her energy on one task, one goal, and pouring everything she had into it.”

Meltzer does a wonderful job balancing the romance and humor with Rachel’s struggles and Jacob’s search for family and community, something he’s longed for since his parents divorced, and he moved with his French mother back to Paris. Watching Rachel and Jacob dance around each other – trying to discover if the other is actually interested – was great fun, as were the many Jewish references. The final scenes during the actual ball were crazy, ridiculous and delightfully slapstick. Filmmakers take note: This would also make a great movie. 

While the plot in “The Matzah Ball” centers around a Jewish event, that’s not true in “I Kissed a Girl.” Both main characters do identify as Jewish and discuss the way they practice – well, mostly don’t practice – their religion. Noa Birnbaum has just dropped out of college to work as a special effects and makeup artist for a horror movie. Noa wants to work in the industry full time and this is the first step to receiving a union card. Adding to the pleasure is that Lilah Silver, the female lead in the film, is someone on whom Noa has had a crush for ages, although Noa knows she has to act professionally to keep her job. Lilah is hoping that this movie will be her big break: she wants to move to A-list films and finally do what she considers real acting. 

Noa is out as a lesbian, but Lilah has only recently begun to explore her attraction to women. Although readers immediately know the two are destined for each other, they each think the other isn’t attracted to them. This makes for some amusing scenes as each acts awkwardly or completely misunderstands the other’s intentions. The novel also explores Lilah’s feelings about being bisexual and her worries about how her friends will react if she reveals her newly developed feelings. This is one reason why Noa and Lilah are unable to understand each other at first, as is the fact that Noa frequently jumps to judgment about other people based on their clothing or taste in literature. Both characters need to learn something about themselves before they can come together as a couple. 

In addition to the romance, there’s the fun of reading about the making of a horror film, particularly watching how Noa and her fellow special effects artists relish creating gory scenes and disembodied parts of human bodies. Alexander is a big fan of these films and includes references to them throughout the book. (She also offers the answers so readers can see if they guessed correctly.) For those who are not fans of the genre, Noa offers an excellent explanation of why she loves them so much: “Like the world is a mess, we all know it. When we talk about it, it’s all big corporations this and heat death of the glaciers that. It’s all so uncontrollable and terrifying. At the same time, being grown-up adults means we’re not allowed to throw temper tantrums when we’re freaking out... Horror gives you a chance to let it out. To be scared and feel your feelings. You’re scared but you’re safe, so it’s okay to scream and cry and let the whole tension-release thing work on you.” 

You don’t have to like horror films or identify with the sexuality of its characters, though, in order to appreciate “I Kissed a Girl.” This well-done work offers much to enjoy, including the cheesecake its characters eat on Shavuot. (You’ll just have to read the novel to discover how that happens.)