I haven’t quite come up with a clever title for this series, but I’m going to go with “editions”. I also have no idea what I really truly want this series to look like…or rather I know what I want it to look like, but I don’t know how the format will follow. I am probably making very little sense…here are my thoughts.
Each post will be devoted to two books, that I will try to have correlate to each other in some way (whether that’s genre, content, whatever) and then I will deep dive/dissect each one individually as well as compare them. I’m going to try and be as balanced and impartial as I can be, but of course I do have my own background and history that seeps into all of this. I’m also going to try and span a wide variety of stories, so that hopefully this is balanced not only in review but also in content for you to then go and read. I’ll avoid spoilers in each post as much as possible, but if I can’t I’ll give a good warning.
Another exciting thing- I am going to try and do a podcast episode with each book or each post that goes a little bit more in depth with the stories. That’s right, the podcast is coming back- Round the Kettle, and this will go hand in hand with it (but the podcast is not solely for this- more later).
Honestly, my goal with this is twofold, I not only want to read more Jewish Literature and support more Jewish Authors (in the hopes of seeing more), but I also want to be able to give full, well-rounded recommendations. There is a lot of “Jewish Literature” out there (you can see my full post all about that HERE) and I feel like some of it is great and some of it can be…not as great in the “Jewish” side- with these first two books being great examples of that.
So, I’ve waffled on long enough, let’s talk about the two books for this 1st Edition of Jewish Literature.
The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer
Ok, I wanted to start with this one because a Hannukah Rom Com? It’s the dream for a lot of Jewish Women Readers- in a holiday world that is dominated with Christmas (which- don’t get me wrong, love a good Hallmark Christmas movie) it’s so nice to be represented in a book or a movie. Since we are heading right into the holiday season, I figured it would be doubly important to talk about now,
The Matzah Ball is about Rachel, a Jewish girl from a prominent Jewish family that loves Christmas and spends her days writing Christmas romance novels…in secret. This year though, her publisher wants her to write a Hanukkah romance. The only problem, Rachel doesn’t feel the joy and magic of Hanukkah, at least not how she feels it with Christmas. Desperate for inspiration, she scores a ticket to what is being shared as the event of the year- The Matzah Ball- hosted by her mortal summer camp enemy.
Now, you would think this would be a great story to read- a melding of a love for Christmas, a love for Judaism, a main character who is grappling with herself, and an “enemies to lovers” style romance. While I thought this book was ok in a book sense, I found it to be…lumbering and not great from a Jewish person sense. Give me a minute to push my sleeves up and gather my thoughts as I’ve been waiting to talk about this since I read it last year.
Where to begin? I’ll start with just the representation of Judaism in the book. Rachel’s parents are a level of Orthodox with a well-known Rabbi for a father. The main conflict that we see our “heroine” go through is whether her parents will approve of her chosen career path or if they will see it as a betrayal of everything, they believe in. We, as readers, are given no insight in to why they might think that her writing of Christmas romances will be so horrific, and spoiler alert it is not. Because, spoiler alert, Jews don’t hate Christmas- at worst we have nothing to do with it, at best, those of us in interfaith relationships celebrate some level of it. Further, whenever something was, even slightly, Jewish, the author made a very obvious point of it. To the point, where even a non-Jewish person would feel ostracized reading the story. Little things felt big purely because they were being pointed out in a noticeable way.
On a positive side, we do have two characters who are from different backgrounds, and we get to see both of their viewpoints. We have Rachel who was raised Orthodox Jewish, only attending Jewish schools, Jewish summer camps, seemingly only mildly aware of the “goyim” world around her and then Jacob, raised Jewish, but by and large stays in her Jewish community. We see her deal with a chronic illness and how that sends her in to the escapism that Christmas provides.
On the other hand, we have Jacob, her mortal summer camp enemy who has had a drastically different upbringing. From a lesser practicing Jewish family, divorced parents to Catholic high school to finding his way through Judaism and always seeking that community. I found that I preferred Jacob’s point of view, I think probably, honestly, because it matched a lot of my own relationship with Judaism and I found him to be a bit more down to earth, a bit more levelheaded about Judaism, life, and our relationships between everything. It felt like for a lot of the story Rachel was a bit of a whiny brat, though dealing with a lot, and Jacob was a bit more…life experienced.
I talk about this because it’s important when it relates to how the Jewish people are portrayed in books and, to be honest, the two tropes presented in our characters, especially Rachel, are very common tropes applied to regular Jewish people in the real world. While I appreciate the growth that our characters experience and appreciate the full circle moments we get at the end, I just wish I left the book feeling…more of a celebration at this great Hanukkah romance.
For the most part of the novel, Judaism is presented in a positive light, I’m not going to disagree with that, and Jean Meltzer does talk a lot about the various traditions and important bits. I’m not sure what I’d hoped for with this novel, but I think the fact that throughout the book she is “pitching” this book to be the Hanukkah Grinch…which I feel sums up a lot of my feelings in two words.
I will more than likely read more books this author writes to see if this theme sticks, or if it changes as we go along. Jean is Jewish, went through rabbinical school, and did suffer with a chronic illness. This was her debut novel, so I’m trying to keep an open mind for future books.
Overall- this is very much a book written for the Anglo Christian person who wants to read about a Hanukkah romance. There’s nothing wrong with that, however I do feel like there is the potential out there for better books and better characters. This book felt very much like it was trying to fit in with the Christmas Romances and maybe it is, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing…I just feel like there is better out there somewhere. I wish that the Yiddish and Jewish customs had been integrated a bit better, not as word/concept, then definition, word/concept, then definition, etc. If you are trying to “normalize” Jewish-ness, then normalize it, don’t make it obvious over every little difference. But I think we’ll see that more in the next book…
An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen
Like, The Matzah Ball, this is also a romance book. It’s not tied to any specific holiday, more of an everyday story, which is nice to have, and we are following different levels of observance. In An Unorthodox Match we follow Leah as she struggles to find a place for herself, a home, within the Orthodox community of Boro Park, Brooklyn. WE also follow Yaakov a recently widowed Orthodox Jewish man who is trying to find a way forward with his family after losing the only one for him. In this story we see how beautiful and transformative love, community, and personal strength can be.
Now, when I pick up a modern Jewish story, this is what I envision it to be…honestly. I won’t make a secret of my love for this book, but I’ll get into the basics and the Jewish side specifics.
First off, we get to see the process of…returning to the faith. Leah was not raised observing Judaism. It’s important to note that she IS Jewish, her mom was Jewish, though her mom ran away from the faith and her grandparents are Jewish. At the very beginning of the story, we get to learn just a little insight into the different options for Orthodox Jews (of which there are many). We get insights into Chabad, Modern Orthodox, Jewish life in Israel, and then for the rest of the book, the traditional Orthodox of Boro Park Brooklyn. It’s a good breakdown of how to return to the faith or explore a deeper connection with the faith, but in a truly beautiful way. The author regularly reminds the reader that this is her choice, and supplies Leah with characters who serve as “foils” to her maintaining this new life (both in her mom- who’s viewpoint we read from and who views Judaism as a cult- much like a lot of the regular world as well as in one of the children who she nannies for- who views her as not enough for their family).
I think the true beauty of this book and its representation of an often not represented or harshly judged community of Jewish people, is in its normalcy and continuing to stress the choice each person makes to live this life. It’s truly special and beautiful.
I think the other choice that this book makes and does well is just…normalizing everything. Unlike the Matzah Ball, we do not get word/concept, then definition, in this there is a glossary at the book that explains everything. By just having the words and concepts in the text it doesn’t make these ideas that may seem strange to those unfamiliar with Judaism so strange…it normalizes everything. I also think having Leah go up against two different foils. Two different forms of thought, the idea that she is joining a cult, and the idea that she is not worthy as she is a “convert” to Orthodoxy, is very telling.
When you look at Orthodox Jews in the regular world (and I’m specifically referring to this specific community that is in the book- Judaism is wide and far reaching and no two Jews are alike in any way) the external fight is that they are “strange, close minded, closed lipped, tight community” and it is true to an extent. They close ranks around their own, they protect, and they are open but not open to outsiders. That is the way that it is, that is almost the way that it has been forced due to those who do not understand. I feel like this book is a fair representation of the community from someone who is not in the community (so I can’t fully speak to it, just as a fellow Jewish person who holds my faith and ethnicity close/high). The internal fight is always to keep the tradition, the faith alive and so yes, that does mean a high standard of traditions, of care, of ways of life.
Where I think the Matzah Ball can fall flat in some ways, An Unorthodox Match really shines. It showcases the Jewish culture in such a positive light, while also being realistic about the choices that are made. It highlights struggles from within and out, and normalizes things like going all of Shabbat without electronics or only eating kosher foods, dressing modestly, etc. Little things that mean a great deal.
So, that’s it! The first Edition of Jewish Literature. Let me know your thoughts and opinions- I’d love some feedback on how this works for you. I’ve got two nonfiction books lined up for the next edition that I’m really looking forward to sharing.
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