Zibby is joined by the Emmy-award winning, chronically-ill and disabled, rabbinical-school drop-out Jean Meltzer to discuss her latest novel, Mr. Perfect on Paper. The two talk about Jean’s unique backstory and medical history, as well as how her diagnoses have each found their way into her books. Jean also shares how her own love story largely inspired this novel, what Yiddish saying she lives her life by, and what book she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jean. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mr. Perfect on Paper.

Jean Meltzer: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here. Really an honor.

Zibby: I told Jean right before we started that my — I don’t know when this is releasing, but today is when the August books article that I wrote for Good Morning America came out, and Jean’s book was on there. I was just telling her. That was really fun to see her reaction.

Jean: Yay! It’s so cool. I was saying how I grew up my whole life watching GMA. I’m a GMA girl. It’s really quite an honor. I never ever thought I would be on any GMA list. I’m very, very honored. You’re going to get me all verklempt even before we begin. It means a lot to me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Good. Jean, first, let’s talk about what your book is about, Mr. Perfect on Paper.

Jean: Mr. Perfect on Paper is about a third-generation matchmaker named Dara Rabinowitz who finds her private search for love inadvertently thrust into the national spotlight when her bubbe shares her list for the perfect Jewish husband on national television, as bubbes tend to do. It goes viral, of course. As the nationwide hunt ensues, she finds her heart more and more drawn to Christopher Steadfast, the totally charming but also really not Jewish reporter following her story. It was partly inspired by my own love story. I was a first-year rabbinical school student. I am deeply committed to my faith. I was deeply committed to my faith. Plot twist. I fell in love with a non-Jewish man. For my second book, I really wanted to explore the tension between loving your faith and falling in love with someone outside of your faith and how you navigate this in this modern world.

Zibby: How do you navigate this?

Jean: It’s interesting. I was a rabbinical student. I always say the difference between a rabbi and an author is, a rabbi literally means teacher. A rabbi’s job is to teach, to answer questions. I feel like an author’s job is to ask questions and not necessarily answer them. I guess what I would say to that is, how you navigate it, the book, it asks the question, but it doesn’t necessarily give you an answer because I think it’s a very individual journey. Every couple has to decide what’s right for them.

Zibby: My second husband actually converted to Judaism, which is how we navigated that one.

Jean: Did he do the whole thingy?

Zibby: He did. He had a mikvah. We did a service on the stage. It was a whole thing. We worked closely with a rabbi for many weeks on it.

Jean: It’s a long time to convert into Judaism. It’s not like, wham, bam. You got to study. My husband also converted to Judaism as well. A lot of that’s his learning and his experience as well as, in the book, of — it’s interesting. You did then have this experience where, as a Jewish woman, what are your lines? What are you willing to move on versus not? It’s definitely more common nowadays.

Zibby: I think — maybe I shouldn’t say that. I was going to say it was more important for me to raise my kids Jewish. Because I wasn’t having kids with my second husband, it wouldn’t have been a total dealbreaker as long as he would come with me to everything, but he volunteered. He’s like, “No, I want to be part of what everybody else is doing.” That was really sweet.

Jean: That’s so sweet. Again, it’s that idea of how we navigate and what we want and what we’re going to choose or not choose. What did he find to be the most interesting part of Judaism coming into it? I always felt like with my husband — I made him go to Yom Kippur services. I made him sit there for twelve years. I was like, if you can do this… I was expecting him to leave, just be done, but he stayed around. That’s how you know love.

Zibby: Yes, oh, my gosh. That’s true love. No, not twelve hours. Two hours or something. Two or three hours. He does fast. He fasts with us. To be honest, he’s Italian Catholic by origin. He’s like, “It’s not so different. There’s the guilt. There’s the food. There’s the emphasis on family.” He didn’t feel like it was such a leap.

Jean: It’s interesting because my husband is half Albanian and then on the other side, Italian, German, and Irish. Very similar, even the Albanian customs when we were getting married, the circle dancing. They had circle dancing. We had circle dancing. Even though we couldn’t have come from more different worlds and backgrounds, in some weird way, because our values were so similar and our cultural experiences were so similar, it really just melded beautifully. All of that is in the book. I tried so hard to marry a nice Jewish boy. I dated every single Jewish man in Manhattan. I really did. Sorry, guys. I dated every single Jewish guy in Manhattan. I’m sure you know this. Sometimes it’s not even that they’re a bad guy. They’re just not the right guy for you. Then I met my husband. He was the right guy for me, but nothing on paper. I was like, what? What is this? Man plans, and God laughs. That’s Dara’s journey. It’s very much inspired by my own journey. Thirteen years. We’re about to celebrate thirteen years of marriage. Mazel tov.

Zibby: Awesome. How did you go from being — you called yourself — what do you call yourself on your website?

Jean: Rabbinical school dropout.

Zibby: Wait, hold on, I want to read what — you call herself “the only Emmy-winning chronically ill and disabled rabbinical school dropout.”

Jean: If there’s someone else out there that can claim that, call me. We’ll be besties. I feel like my journey’s been very unusual. I started in film and television. I thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I was very successful very young. In that success, I realized I wasn’t happy.

Zibby: Wait, go back. Successful on the writing side?

Jean: Yeah, in television. I was working in television. I was producing daytime television. I won an Emmy within a year of graduation. I was creative director of a company. I had fifty people under me. I was doing very well. I had hit all these goals that I thought, as a teenager, I wanted, to be a Manhattan TV producer, black pants and cat glasses and living in New York. I wasn’t happy. Joke’s on me. I began a process of looking for what would make me happy. What I realized is I had been living for my goals and not for my values. I made a decision to live for my values, which is a decision I still hold to by today. In that process, I returned to the only value system I knew, which was Judaism. I began studying. I began getting really into it. I guess you would call me a , meaning a person that’s returning to the faith. I decided to just quit my job and move to Israel to study. That’s what I did. I made my mother cry. I made everyone very concerned. I did that. I followed my heart, passionate to the point of recklessness. I spent the next five years studying in various seminaries, rabbinical schools. I was training to become a rabbi.

Unfortunately, the chronic illness that I have had since I was about eighteen years old worsened. We know a lot more now than we did when I was eighteen and diagnosed. I just kept getting sicker and sicker and sicker. I knew that I could not finish rabbinical school. I was just way too sick. I was going to kill myself to try. I withdrew. I essentially became homebound, which I’ve been for the last ten years. Very bad for two years where the only thing in my life that I could do was go to the grocery store maybe once a month for half an hour. Thankfully, I was able to get a little better than that. I decided to start writing again. Very slow process to be able to write again. That’s what happened. At one point, I sat down, and I wrote The Matzah Ball. That book took off. It became a culmination of my journey, which was the writing and the Judaism coming together. Chronic illness and these invisible things all culminated in where I am today. Man plans. God laughs. It’s definitely an interesting story. It’s been a journey to get here, but I appreciate every single second of it because the odds were not in my favor.

Zibby: Do you mind talking more about the illness and what it was and what happened?

Jean: Sure. The moniker that it goes by is chronic fatigue syndrome. That’s what I was diagnosed with at eighteen. It’s known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Very hard to say. ME is what a lot of people go by. It’s not just about being fatigued. It’s a neuroimmune, multisystem disease. It actually winds up disabling — twenty-five percent of people with the disease are bedbound. Seventy-five percent of people who are diagnosed with CFS will never return to working full time, I believe the statistic is. This is a very disabling disease with a horrible, misogynistic moniker that is really meant to devalue the experience that we have as disabled, chronically ill people. For over twenty years now, I’ve been living with this disease. Mine, I would say, it goes up and down. It’s rapid — not rapid. It’s going up. I forget the word right now. Brain fog. Remitting-relapsing. Excuse me. Remitting-relapsing. It means I’m a little bit better. Then I get worse. A little better. Basically, I have to navigate my life around this disease. Then as I got older, probably why it got worse — I always joke chronic illnesses are kind of like teenagers going to a bathroom. They travel in packs. I’ve gotten more conditions, unfortunately. Bringing it back to writing, writing is my joy and my escape from the reality of these conditions. Whether there were going to be books at the end of it or not, I’d be writing anyway. I guess that’s how you know you’re a writer.

Zibby: You have such a wonderful attitude and this air of happiness around you.

Jean: It’s weird. I know. I think that’s because I had to learn to hold onto my happiness. I’m very spastic. I will do something just because it makes me laugh, because it makes me feel good, because it’s fun. I made a decision many years ago that even if my entire life was going to be stuck to four square walls and a bedroom, that I was going to hold onto my joy, that I was going to be happy, that I wasn’t going to give up, that I was going to see value in my life. I think I’ve never stopped that. I’m still that girl who said, I want to live for my values. If you build your house around the things you believe in, you value, you love, then you’ll always be happy. Yeah, I’m very spastic.

Zibby: I did not say spastic. I said happy. You said spastic.

Jean: I also don’t get out much, so when I talk to people, I get very excited. I’m very happy to be talking to you.

Zibby: Are you able to walk? Can you walk?

Jean: Yeah, I am able to walk. For me, it’s more like — we get something called post-exertional malaise. It’s kind of like anything you do, you get a kickback. I’ll get an uptick in flu symptoms. I’ll get very fatigued. I might get a migraine. You just have to really be careful to navigate through your disease. Again, I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten — within my books, one of the things I try to do is — in Matzah Ball, we talk about chronic fatigue. In Mr. Perfect on Paper, I’m talking about generalized anxiety disorder. In my third book I’m working on right now, I’m talking about chronic pelvic pain. I feel very lucky that I’m getting to bring awareness to these invisible things that, otherwise, we don’t see in our society in a fun sort of way.

Zibby: I was dogearing all the pages in your book about anxiety. I didn’t even know that anxiety was a thing. I thought everybody felt this way about everything.

Jean: Really?

Zibby: I just didn’t even know. I just assumed everybody worried. It’s only as I’ve gotten older —

Jean: — live together. You’re like, wait a second, that’s not normal?

Zibby: I’m like, whatever. It is what it is. It is rewarding to see in literature or whatever, other people when they’re going through it and making light of it and all of that, which I really appreciated. I appreciated — was it Christopher Steadfast?

Jean: Yes.

Zibby: His whole point of view came from loss and trying to make things better for his daughter and the heartbreaking nature of that and reinvention of family and what it means to parent, to be a good parent, to date and be a parent, all of that stuff. Super interesting and really well-executed.

Jean: For me, I love in books, and this very Jewish concept of bashert, which is that the other half makes you better and helps you fill up what you need to be a better person. For both of them, they both have fears, but they’re different types of fears. Whereas her anxiety is much more irrational — she’s very rigid. Can’t go into Manhattan without thinking of all the things that could kill you. His fears are much more based in his experience of reality and much more about the fear of falling in love again, the fear of being hurt again. They both have to come together in order to overcome that, which I think is sweet. I love what you said about re-envisioning family because I think she had to do that too. What does she want? What does she really want? What is the vision? We all have a vision, right?

Zibby: Yes. I know. I feel like I should tell younger people just to throw it out the window.

Jean: Whatever you’re thinking, man plans, God laughs, the Yiddishism right there.

Zibby: I say that often.

Jean: Because it’s true. It’s totally true. You think you know where you’re going. I remember when I had to drop out of rabbinical school and that feeling of, what happened to my life? How did this happen? Ten years. My most exciting thing in my life was going to the dog park and listening to dog walkers gossip, which is fabulous, by the way. has the opportunity to do that, you should totally do that. It’s so strange to think your life can change so much. You write a book. Boom, all this stuff happens. The one thing I would always say is you never know, for good or bad, where your life is going in the next five years, which is why you should never give up.

Zibby: Tell me about the success of The Matzah Ball and how that changed your life.

Jean: I definitely have a lot more friends on Facebook now. It’s interesting because I think the coolest part about it, aside from being able to meet all these people and share stories, was just that feeling that in some weird way — my life when I walked into a room was always these disparate identities. I had my Jewish identity. I had my chronically ill identity. Then I had my “I want to secretly be a Real Housewife” identity. With The Matzah Ball, it was like I didn’t have to explain myself anymore. It was the first time I was Jewish and chronically ill and loved fabulousity. It was in a book. It felt like my soul was complete. If I had gotten hit by a bus the next day, I would’ve been like, I’m good, God. Thank you. For me, that’s been the coolest or best experience personally, is the sense that I don’t have to explain myself anymore. It’s in my stories. Then obviously, all the rest. I try not to put any sort of value into monetary or economic ideas of success because I think that’s a really dangerous path. I’m happy that I can write really good stories that have resonated with people. Obviously, I’m glad I can pay for my medications. I think that’s it. Yes, my life has changed a lot more. I’m much busier. I feel very blessed. As I keep saying, I don’t take any of it for granted. I’m just unbelievably grateful for every moment.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me more about the pelvic illness novel.

Jean: Man plans. God laughs. Pretty much the same weekend I heard The Matzah Ball was going to be made into a book, I woke up with what I thought was a urinary tract infection. Eight rounds of antibiotics, three specialists later, it was not a urinary tract infection. This was the first time I was re-maneuvering in the medical system since my diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. It was during a pandemic. They put me on hormones. They put me into chemical menopause. They gave me a diagnosis of everything from fibro and clinical endometriosis. If you’ve been through pelvic pain, you know this is very common. You get every diagnosis, every medication. Finally, after surgery — they removed fibroids. They removed a tumor they found on my bladder, which turned out to be a fibroid, so it was non-cancerous. I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis. That began a new journey for me, which was how to reclaim my femininity and my sexuality and be sexual with pelvic pain. I had to learn my body anew. As I was going through this, I knew it was going to be my third book. I knew it had to be my third book. The third book is a book about two rival bakeries. The woman is suffering from chronic pelvic pain and sexual dysfunction. It’s about, can you find the right recipe to fall in love? Two kosher bakeries. One’s an heir to a major baked goods empire. The other one’s a kosher bakery in Brooklyn. Always Jew-y. Lots of rugelach and funfetti challah.

Zibby: Amazing. I see a very delicious book tour coming for that. Please invite me to some of those events so I can eat funfetti challah. Actually, we have a place in the summer here. There’s a farm stand down the block. They make challah with all different flavors, which is really great. They even have a jalapeño challah and a chocolate chip challah and sun-dried tomato.

Jean: Wow. What’s your favorite?

Zibby: I’m so boring. I actually like the regular, just plain, sea salt.

Jean: Same. You’re a purist.

Zibby: I’m a purist.

Jean: I totally get it. I always say that to my husband too. At the end of the day, I like it the way it is. Don’t put all the stuff on it.

Zibby: You know what? I’m going to steal that line, purist, instead of boring because it sounds so much better than boring.

Jean: You’re like, I just need a piece of chicken. I just need a piece of a challah.

Zibby: Totally. I don’t want the spicey stuff. Don’t have to think about it.

Jean: Foam on top of it, flowers.

Zibby: No foam. No, no, no. No, thank you. Nothing even on the bottom.

Jean: Give me bread and butter, I’m a happy girl.

Zibby: I’m exactly the same. Thank you. I feel very seen right now. Thank you. Parting advice, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jean: Do not give up. The only difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is the published writer just kept at it and at it and at it. I used to tell myself if I could only get one sentence down a day, if it took me eight years to write a book, I was going to finish a book. I was going to write a book. It turned out to be quite a prophetic and correct — it took me ten years. Don’t give up because you can be one of those stories where it happens for you. Don’t give up. All the rejections, every writer goes through it, having to learning, thinking it will never happen for you. Then one day it does. Just keep writing. Do it because you love it. Don’t do it for any other reason than because you love it. That would be my other piece of advice.

Zibby: Jean, thank you. Thank you for coming on. Congratulations on Mr. Perfect on Paper, which I absolutely loved. I’m so impressed with all of your life story and your attitude and just all of it, and your talent and everything. I love your voice in writing so much. Keep going. I can’t wait to read what you do.

Jean: Thank you so much. Thank you for putting me in your GMA August list. That means so much to me. Thank you for having me here. Thank you to everybody listening. I hope you love this book as much as I do because it is a book near and dear to my heart. Everyone, go out and get Mr. Perfect on Paper. I love you all.

Zibby: Thank you, Jean. Bye.

Jean: Bye.


MR. PERFECT ON PAPER by Jean Meltzer

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