A review of Melvyn Westreich’s According to Their Deeds.
Steve Lincoln’s wife died of breast cancer a couple of years ago, and Lincoln, a retired building contractor, remains too depressed to resume many of his activities. He certainly has not started dating. His adult son and his rabbi cajole Lincoln into joining a workshop at the local Jewish Community Center (in suburban Detroit) for dealing with grief and loss.
Nearly two years ago, a drunk driver killed Ayelet Weinberg’s husband, a brilliant rabbinical student. The young widow, left with three small children and no reasonable source of income, can barely hold her life together. She is not ready to talk with a shadkhan (matchmaker). Ayelet’s trusted confidante, Rebbetzin Kalmonowitz, agrees with Rabbi Kalmonowitz that Ayelet needs to join the grief and loss workshop at the suburban Detroit JCC.
Melvyn Westreich tells the story of this widow and widower in his third novel, According to Their Deeds: A Frum Romance. In chapters alternating between Ayelet’s point-of-view and Steve’s, we see the two recover their interest in life, combine to overcome her financial distress and grow a warm friendship. Eventually, they confront the question — the central question of romance stories — whether that friendship can grow into a lasting romantic attachment.
Now, the formula for a romance story is no secret: Have your reader fall in love with an adorable couple. Convince your reader that the couple belong together. Then put obstacles in their path, which keep them apart. Eventually, the obstacles permanently separate the couple (in a tragic romance like Romeo and Juliet) or the couple succeed in overcoming the obstacles (in a happy romance like The Princess Bride).
To make the story succeed, though, the writer must create an endearing couple and come up with intriguing obstacles for them to overcome. Steve Lincoln and Ayelet Weinberg qualify as endearing: honest, sensitive and compassionate. They face obstacles: He is wealthy, she nearly impoverished; he has entered middle age, she is in her early 30s. The most stubborn and interesting obstacle to their romance comes from their different communities: Steve belongs to the Modern Orthodox world; Ayelet, to the Haredi world, non-Chasidic variety (the people outsiders describe as “ultra-Orthodox”).
Can a young Haredi women find happiness with an older Modern Orthodox man?
Read According to Their Deeds to find out. Along the way, as you read, you will encounter a sympathetic presentation of Haredi values. But Westreich is no propagandist: His presentation of Haredi life is not worshipful.
Steve and Ayelet must protect themselves from “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” respected members of both Modern Orthodox and Haredi communities who do not live up to their professed ideals. The rabbi and rebbetzin generally give wise advice, but they are fallible. Sometimes they misjudge the situation. At the most dangerous points in the story, decisive help comes from a Jew who utterly rejects ritual observance.
I enjoyed reading According to Their Deeds: A Frum Romance. I think you will, too.
Meet the Author: Melvyn Westreich
Melvyn Westreich has great affection for Detroit and its Jewish community. He set his first two novels here, and he also set According to Their Deeds, in Metro Detroit. He says another reason for putting this romance story here:
“This novel centers on a relationship between Modern Orthodox and Haredi (so- called ‘ultra-Orthodox’) Jews,” he said. “In Detroit, an intimate community, different segments of the Jewish community rub shoulders with each other. They can’t help themselves. The community is too small to avoid interaction. The plot of According to Their Deeds describes something that could happen.
“Describing a community where the different segments interact with each other and get along with each other enables me to tell a story of how the Jewish world should be.”
Born in London, Westreich grew up in the Bronx, New York. He earned his medical degree at Wayne State University in Detroit and stayed for his residency. Then he moved to Israel, where he lives on Kibbutz Yavneh.
Now, Westreich says, he has “zero family in Detroit,” but he keeps in contact with really close friends here who “are like family.”
Westreich has been chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Assaf HaRofeh Medical Center of Tel Aviv University, president of the Israel Association of Plastic Surgery and chairman of the Board of Plastic Surgery in Israel.
Active on the board that oversees mohalim (circumcizers) in Israel, Westreich has traveled to Africa to teach circumcision techniques as part of an international effort to control AIDS.