New York Chana Taub peered through a 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 to irritate one another - each refused to move out of the house they shared for 18 years. A judge ordered construction of the wall, which runs down the middle of the house, to prevent the couple from sparring 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.
Split down the middle
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 access only 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."
'War of the Roses'
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 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 high 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."
Chana said she sued for divorce because he physically and mentally abused her - charges Simon denied. Chana had him forced out of the house after she filed a police report that he beat her. Simon requested to move back and sought permission to build a wall. A judge agreed with the idea. "I told the judge I want to have a wall to protect me," Simon said. He spent $500 to build it.
Chana appealed the judge's decision and lost.
Happy life together
The Taubs met two decades ago, introduced by a mutual friend at a used car dealership. The marriage was the second for both.
"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 would prepare elaborate Sabbath meals for Simon and his guests.
Chana says Simon lost interest in her when she got older. "He needs a younger, prettier wife," she said. A petite blond-haired woman, Chana 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."
'She's lying all the way!'
Simon flails his arms, flustered by Chana's allegations. "She's lying all the way!" He denies having mistresses and recalls their past differently.
"The only time I told her to put on my socks was when I got a stroke and I was paralyzed on one side," said Simon, a heavyset man with a long gray beard who wears glasses and a black yarmulke. "Who should put on my socks and shoes? Should I call a maid?"
He said that in 2005, he told his wife about the bankruptcy and that he no longer could afford the lavish life she was accustomed to, which included a Lincoln, Lexus and Cadillac, as well as plastic surgery on her face and breasts, and 300 pairs of shoes. Chana denies having plastic surgery and says she does not own that many pairs of shoes.
"He makes up these stories," she said, "these horrible lies about me."
"He wants to remind everybody of Imelda Marcos," her sister added. "He wants to make her look bad."
Chana admitted Simon paid for her Lexus but said he bought himself a bigger, better one with tinted windows. She said her husband knew she had a fear of driving small cars, but "he forced me to drive it because it's cheaper."
Simon says he suffers from health and financial problems, and he does not believe his wife deserves the house, which he says he can sell for $1 million. He claims she filed for divorce because his company went bankrupt. Now he relies on income from real estate investments.
"It's my house, all my life," Simon said. "To take a person and throw them out in the middle of the night because I am a sugar daddy, this is not comfortable."
Chana said she never cared about his money.
"We were married 21 years and have four children together," Chana said. "I don't think the definition of that is a sugar daddy. He's not a sugar daddy; he's a bitter daddy."
Children in the middle
Three of the couple's children, ages 18, 19 and 20, stay in Chana's half of the home. Chana is demanding child support for them. Their 16-year-old son moved into Simon's two-bedroom apartment down the block.
Chana says Simon's half also includes the downstairs area with controls for the electricity and heat. She complains that when she feels cold there is no way for her to adjust the heat. Temperatures outside recently dropped to 9 degrees. Simon turned off the heat, Chana says, and left her shivering in bed under three blankets.
"She has the thermostat and the boiler on her side, how can I control? That's a lie," he said, opening all of his closets and doors. "You want to start looking with me? Find the boiler. I will go with you."
Chana says the judge does not understand her misery. Anyone who supports the idea of the wall "should each have their worst enemy living with them under the same roof," she said. "I can't sleep at night."
Simon says he's not going anywhere. He plans to build a kitchen.
"My side," he said, "it's OK to stay there forever."