Since its inception, there has been one consistent rule of the romance genre: There must be a happily ever after.
Because of its many rules and tropes, romance novels have historically been perceived as lacking in diversity. The roots of modern romance novels trace back to the romantic and sentimental literature of the 19th century, an era dominated by white and Christian authors.
These texts set the canon for the genre and established many of its most famous tropes — enemies to lovers, fake dating, and forbidden love, to name a few.
While some of these aspects have stayed the same, over time, other features of the romance genre have changed.
Now, romance authors are telling a wider range of stories, with protagonists and love interests representing a variety of races, religions, sexualities, and more. In recent years, there has been an uptick in Jewish romance novels with Jewish storylines, characters and authors.
Unpacked spoke with Jewish romance authors Jean Meltzer, Meredith Schorr, and Heidi Shertok about their new releases and why they chose to bring Jewish romantic life to readers across the world.
Jean Meltzer’s “Kissing Kosher” is a must-read for romance lovers
Coming off the success of her 2021 breakout novel “The Matzah Ball” and 2022’s “Mr. Perfect on Paper,” Jean Meltzer delivered “Kissing Kosher,” another fast-paced Jewish romance that discusses the experiences of women living with chronic illness.
“Kissing Kosher” follows Avital Cohen, the co-owner of Best Babka in Brooklyn, and her sexy new hire Ethan Lippmann. Ethan and Avital have instant chemistry, but there’s a small issue: Ethan’s a double agent for his grandfather who wants him to steal Best Babka’s pumpkin spice babka recipe. This star-crossed romance forces Avital to come to terms with how her interstitial cystitis has influenced her life, and both need to reckon with their families’ decades-long rivalry.
Meltzer, who lives with chronic fatigue syndrome, uses her novels to highlight what life with chronic illness is like. After being diagnosed at 18, she was able to “fake normal” and take on a job in television and eventually attend rabbinical school. However eventually, the toll of her illness caught up to her and she spent around two years mostly bed-bound.
“Having gone from an Emmy Award-winning rabbinical student to a woman confined to her bedroom, I had to make a choice and the choice was very simple: was I going to survive? And in that moment, I made a decision that … I was going to find a way to hold on to my joy,” Meltzer said.
In finding her joy, Meltzer began reading romance novels because she was looking for books that were light and lacked negativity. After stumbling upon the genre, she became obsessed and two years later published her first novel: “The Matzah Ball.”
The novel was never meant to be published, only to provide her happiness while writing and give to her niece when finished.
“I didn’t have happy Jewish stories growing up and I realized my niece needed these types of stories, so I sat down and wrote a book for her,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer added that as someone who loves being Jewish, she feels a responsibility to represent the Jewish people in a positive light and write about the joys of being Jewish.
However, Meltzer does not shy away from tackling sensitive issues in her work. “Kissing Kosher” explores the theme of transgenerational trauma and the legacy of antisemitism in families — highlighting that chronic pain can be both emotional and physical.
“Part of this journey within this book and having Ethan and Avital as star-crossed lovers is that both of them dealt with the emotional legacy of trauma and discord. For me, this felt very Jewish,” Meltzer said. “I like the idea of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending.”
Meredith Schorr’s “Someone Just Like You” is perfect for enemies-to-lovers readers
Meredith Schorr’s second novel “Someone Just Like You” follows childhood neighbors Molly Blum and Jude Stark as they plan their parents’ joint anniversary party and fall in love in a funny enemies-to-lovers romance.
Schorr began her journey to romance by writing a blog about her own dating experiences in New York City. She loved that people would ask her questions and interact with her posts. Schorr said that she has a “vivid daydream life” and would make up scenarios about the people she was seeing: What if they had a happily-ever-after instead of breaking up?
Combining her active imagination with her love of writing, she decided to write her debut novel “As Seen on TV.”
Schorr said it wasn’t a conscious decision to make her characters Jewish, but came from a place of familiarity. She wanted her characters to interact with their friends and family the same way she did.
Schorr found that too many people associate Jews with World War II, the Holocaust, and the religious aspect of Judaism. While many Jewish people attend synagogue, Schorr aims to depict the more cultural side of being Jewish.
“A lot of Jewish people go to temple on a regular basis and obviously I want everybody to know about the Holocaust. Those stories are really important to be told by the right people, but there’s so much more to being Jewish,” Schorr said.
“There’s joy, we love our family and friends, we seek romantic love. We like to go out to dinner, watch sports, listen to music, and dance. I think Jewish characters deserve to be seen having joy, love and humor,” she added.
Schorr is proud to portray more secular Jews in her novels: Molly is Reform, Jude is Conservative. She values hearing from her readers how much it means to see their experiences reflected on the page.
In response to what she perceived as a lack of knowledge about Conservative and Reform Judaism, Schorr aimed to show a diversity of Jewish practice: “Part of writing the novel was just to show that you can be Jewish and live slightly differently, or very differently depending on how you observe or how you were raised.”
Schorr knew that she wanted to write an enemies-to-lovers romance because she has always loved stories in which the couple has a long history. For Molly and Jude, who have known each other since birth, Schorr threw readers into over 20 years of drama and a broken best friendship.
Heidi Shertok’s “Unorthodox Love” is a cross-denominational romance you can’t miss
Shertok recently released her debut novel “Unorthodox Love,” which recently became the No. 1 Jewish book bought on Amazon.
“Unorthodox Love” details 29-year-old Penina’s journey to find love; as an infertile Orthodox woman, she’s struggled to be matched up with anyone appropriate. Penina decides to enter a fake marriage with Zevi, a gay Orthodox man, to help bail her struggling family out of debt. She is content with her choice until she begins to fall for Sam Kleinfield, her less religious new boss — and must choose between her heart and her traditions.
As a lifetime reader, Shertok naturally translated her love for reading into a passion for storytelling. She fell in love with the romantic comedy genre from the “mother of all Rom-Coms” Jane Austen when she read “Pride and Prejudice.”
The first-time published author attended a session with a literary agent at her local library who gave her advice that inspired “Unorthodox Love”: Write books in the setting that the author is most familiar with.
Shertok’s friend suggested she write a romance novel centered on her Orthodox Judaism.
“Orthodox romance? I said, ‘that kind of sounds like an oxymoron.’ I told her that I didn’t think that was a thing and she told me to ‘make it a thing,’” Shertok told Unpacked.
In creating a romance across different religious denominations, Shertok wanted to explore limits put on love and what some do to seek true happiness.
“I was curious about what if such a woman like [Penina] existed and what if she really didn’t get matched up with anyone she loved? Yet she came across somebody who was by any standard really perfect for her except for this one thing that she was always kind of taught was off limits,” Shertok said.
In her debut novel, Shertok wanted to discuss infertility in the Orthodox community as the women in her family struggled with getting pregnant. In her experiences, she’s noticed an “extra layer of sensitivity” around the topic due to communal pressures to quickly become pregnant after marriage.
Despite the heavy topics discussed, “Unorthodox Love” is, at its core, a joyous book.
“When I first had a Zoom meeting with my agents, they said to me, ’This is the first story I’ve seen where Orthodox Jews seem kind of light and normal and fun’,” she explained. “I’m really pleased that I could contribute to this idea.”
The power of books for educating about Jewish culture
All three authors emphasized the potential of books to educate readers about Jewish culture and the importance of showcasing Jewish life in diverse genres.
Meltzer believes it’s more important to tell Jewish stories now more than ever, providing opportunities for people to learn about Jewish life in whatever genre they like to read.
“For me, the biggest thing with the broader audience is just creating access points, so that people see Jews living life, living joyously,” Meltzer said.
Shertok echoed this, noting the power of storytelling to connect people across different cultures. “When you share your stories, it’s almost like you’re touching someone else’s humanity and you see that you have so much in common with other people and religions just across the board,” she said.
Schorr underscored the importance of Jewish stories that span a range of topics and tones, ensuring the representation of diverse protagonists. “Everybody deserves to see themselves or somebody like them as a lead character in a romance novel,” she said.
Originally Published Nov 2, 2023 11:26AM EDT