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Far apart under one roof

Something came between Chana and Simon Taub: a wall, ordered by a divorce judge, right through the three-story home neither will leave.

February 10, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

New York — CHANA Taub peered through a narrow gap in the recently built sheetrock wall that sliced her three-story house in two. Straining to look at what used to be her living room, she worried that her husband was lurking on the other side.

"I can't be near him," she whispered, just in case he was eavesdropping. "If I see him, I run the other way."

Chana and Simon Taub are in the middle of a spiteful divorce. Out of stubbornness -- and a determination not to lose the house to the other -- both refused to give up the place they shared for 18 years. In one of New York's strangest divorce battles, a judge ordered construction of the wall to keep the quarreling couple apart while under the same roof.

The wall went up in December as neighbors gathered outside to watch. The sand-colored barrier on the first floor separates the living room from a spiral staircase leading to the second and third floors. The second floor is divided in half by a locked glass and mahogany door that has been barricaded with plywood.

Chana, 57, got the garage, front door, spiral staircase, three bathrooms, second-floor kitchen, four bedrooms and a nursery on the third floor.

That left Simon, 58, with a side entrance into the first-floor living room and bathroom, along with a second-floor dining room, which he could only access by walking up his neighbor's stairs outside, climbing over a railing on his balcony and entering through a window. To his wife's dismay, Simon paid construction workers to build a spiral staircase on his side, allowing him to get from his living room to his dining room.

Simon says he intends to stay until she moves out. "I want a peaceful life, and that's it," he said. "I don't want nothing to do with that woman."

The couple also own property down the block, which Simon uses. But neither will surrender the home in Borough Park, a middle- and upper-class neighborhood of brownstones, brick housing complexes, family-owned pizzerias and falafel shops. The Taubs' house is a brown brick building surrounded by a crimson fence. A sign on the main entrance, which Chana put up, reads "CHANA TAUB."

"He sleeps in the other apartment," said Chana, sitting inside her kitchen decorated with pink floral wallpaper and granite counters. On weekends he goes to his half of the house, she said, "and makes a lot of noise."

Her twin sister, Esther Newhouse, added, "He purposely hangs things and claps and screams just to annoy her."

The case has been dubbed by local media as Brooklyn's "War of the Roses," after the 1989 movie about a divorcing couple who waged a vicious fight to their deaths over their house and possessions.

"It's bizarre," said Stanley D. Heisler, a divorce lawyer in New York for 24 years. It isn't unheard of for couples going through a divorce to refuse to move out, Heisler said, especially with the soaring cost of housing. Some, he said, suffer for years together in a one-bedroom apartment.

But, Heisler said, "this wall business -- I've never heard of that."

THE Taubs met two decades ago, introduced by a mutual friend at a used car dealership. On their first date, Simon took Chana to a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. It was not love at first sight, Chana said, but she was getting older and wanted to get married. It was the second marriage for both.

"You know why he married Chana?" her sister asked. "Because Chana was a beautiful girl, and there were a lot of men running after her."

"She married me and had a good life," said Simon, who owned a sweater manufacturing company that went bankrupt several years ago. "I had a big business. I was in the stock market and I made a lot of money."

Simon said they were happy at first. They decorated the home together, adorning its front with a big stained glass window and selecting mahogany wood for the closets and staircase. Chana said when she wanted a job, her husband would not hear of it. She stayed at home raising the couple's four children, and on weekends she would prepare elaborate Sabbath meals for Simon and his guests.

"He never flushed the toilet," Newhouse said. "He made her clean up after him. She always had to flush the toilet, even when there was company there."

Chana says Simon lost interest in her when she got older. "He needs a younger, prettier wife," she said. A petite blonde, Chana looks younger than her age. She is soft-spoken and pouts when she talks about how he mistreated her. Simon used to wake her in the middle of the night, she claims, telling her to put his socks on him and make coffee so he could visit his mistresses.

"I was very loyal to him," she said. "He would shout and curse and throw food on the floor."

Simon flails his arms, flustered by Chana's allegations. "She's lying all the way!" He denies having mistresses and recalls their past differently.

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