March 18, 2004
A Match Made in Ratner’s Restaurant
"The Matzo Ball Heiress," by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (Red Dress Ink, $12.95).
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is not, repeat not scion to a matzah fortune, like the heroine of her hyperkinetic new novel, "The Matzo Ball Heiress."
"I'm the heiress, like, to a condo in Florida," the author and filmmaker said from her Lower East Side home.
But she is a self-professed yenta, which is why she honed in on waiters fawning over a 30-something woman at the now-defunct Ratner's kosher dairy restaurant before Passover several years ago. Shapiro was having what she calls an "ironic blintz lunch" with fellow hipsters when she noticed a smartly dressed patron getting the royal treatment.
"The waiter said, 'You don't pay,' so I turned around and said, 'Why don't you pay?'" recalled Shapiro, who is in her 30s.
Turns out the woman was a Streit, as in Streit's matzah, as in every item on Shapiro's Passover table, as in the matzah balls in Shapiro's favorite bowl of chicken soup. In fact, the author had long been curious about the massive Streit factory several blocks from her apartment, which had remained in the neighborhood while others succumbed to gentrification. (The old Kedem winery had of late become a nightclub, Tonic.)
So her jaw dropped when she learned that the matzah heiress was as unfamiliar with the neighborhood as she was with her religion. In fact, the heiress had only made the trek from her Upper West Side home to help her cousins during the factory's pre-Passover rush. She worked in casting, not matzah, and she didn't know much about Judaism, although she was hoping to learn more by taking a class.
"I thought, 'Here's a woman whose name is all over my seder, and her family's factory is still kosher, yet she personally had lost the connection," Shapiro said.
The irony inspired the author to invent her own, totally fictionalized matzah heiress, the unfortunately named yet sexy Heather Greenblotz.
The frothy novel appears to be riding the "chick lit" wave spurred by Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary," Laura Zigler's "Animal Husbandry" and others exploring women's angst with sassy aplomb. The fictional Greenblotz, like many of these heroines, is single, lonely and horny, although she has an additional problem during the Passover season.
A century after her grandfather founded the world's leading matzah company, Heather, a documentary producer, typically celebrates Pesach alone, with an extremely unkosher ham and cheese panini. But this Passover promises to be different from all other Passovers. Heather is being courted by two guys, one a non-Jewish playboy, the other a cute, Sabbath-observant cameraman. Meanwhile, The Food Channel has asked to film her family seder, which could boost waning matzah sales. The problem is, there is no Greenblotz family seder (her father, for example, is off in Amsterdam with his male lover) and Heather has to fake one between sorting out her complicated love life and Jewish identity.
The character is rueful, chatty and mordantly witty, qualities the author exhibited during a Journal interview last Friday. If Shapiro shares anything with Greenblotz, it's her struggle to meaningfully reconnect with Judaism. While her great-grandfather was the mashgiach of Palestine, she grew up a "pork-eating Conservative Jew" and married an Australian lapsed Catholic.
"My daughter's name is Violet Frances O'Leary," she noted. "Yet she will have a bat mitzvah, and it will be the 'O'Leary bat mitzvah.'"
Shapiro described the roots of her intermarriage in her well-received first novel, "The Unexpected Salami" (1998), now being made into a movie. It's largely based on the diary she began while working as a communications consultant in Melbourne, where she shared a flat with members of an aging rock band and fell in love with the bass player. Said rockers held up the chuppah at her 1997 wedding, which, to the Aussies, was "not 100-percent kosher," she said.
Also not-so-kosher was the subsequent novel she sent "Salami's" publishers, based on her father's experience as a widower helping to invent color TV. Apparently the editors were thinking more "Bridget Jones," because they asked Shapiro to come back with something more appealing to contemporary urban women.
"I felt there were many stories I could tell, so rather than getting angry, I agreed to think about it," she said.
Not long after, she met the matzah heiress and began her second novel, which was ultimately sold to a different publisher, Red Dress Ink. She's now finishing a third book, "The Anglophile," about a linguist who obsesses over dead European languages and ignores her own Yiddish roots.
As the interview progressed, Shapiro reflected that writing about soul-searching Jewish women has been a way for her to strengthen her own Jewish ties.
"Of course, I hope I never go through that Barbra Streisand 'Yentl' phase," she said. "But this is really who I am."