Observance At Heart Of Custody Battle

Observance At Heart Of Custody Battle

Jews hunting for Easter eggs on Passover? "Sacrilege," according to Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten. That’s what the judge said last week during the contentious custody battle between billionaire Ronald Perelman and his ex-wife, Patricia Duff, over their 4-year-old daughter, Caleigh.

Attorneys for Perelman, a self-described Orthodox adherent, charge that Duff staged an Easter egg hunt and baked cookies during Passover last year while the child spent the Jewish holiday with her.

"This mother has lied continually about leading a Jewish way of life," Adria Hillman, an attorney for Perelman, who owns Revlon and a host of other businesses, told the court last week. "What happened last year was a sacrilege."Bransten agreed, saying, "It was a sacrilege," and granted Perelman, 55, the right to spend Passover with the child. Perelman’s lawyers have said also that Duff lied about her attendance at a Manhattan rabbi’s Passover seder in 1997, and that Duff attended a Yankees playoff game on Yom Kippur last year with Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).

But Duff’s attorneys, Bonnie Rabin and Harriet Cohen, said Duff leads a Jewish life and rebutted the charges. According to a prenuptial agreement, Duff is required to raise Caleigh Jewish. Duff, 44, was an Episcopalian before converting when she married Perelman in 1995.

Rabin says the agreement contains no specifics. "What it means is that he is Jewish and she is Jewish and they try to celebrate and share Jewish holidays," she said.

Cohen called the Easter egg hunt charge "overblown."

"It was not a religious event. It involved a lot of little children," she said.On the Passover seder claim, Rabin said she erred in filing an affidavit: that Duff and Caleigh actually had a Rosh HaShanah dinner at the home of Rabbi Arthur Schneier in 1997. Duff’s lawyers say she is a member of the rabbi’s Park East Synagogue.

Perelman’s lawyers submitted a brief letter from Rabbi Schneier that said congregational seders were held in the synagogue ballroom, not in his home. The rabbi did not return phone calls for comment.Rabin said the World Series game was played at night, after the holiday.

As the two-year custody struggle heated up, Rabin said it was worrisome that Perelman was trying to monitor and discredit the religious observance of her client. And even more troubling, she said, is a secular judge agreed.

"I think it’s scary for anyone, and especially sensitive for Jewish people, to have a state court determine the appropriate level of observance as to what’s going to be Jewish enough," Rabin said.

Perelman’s attorney, Hillman, could not be reached for a response.

Marc Stern, an expert on church-state issues for the American Jewish Congress, said judges generally "should not be in the business of deciding what is and isn’t sacrilege." But Stern, who had not seen the court opinion, stressed that the issue is more complicated because New York is perhaps the only state that enforces prenuptial agreements about religious observance.

Stern said the judge’s ruling may also be more about Duff’s credibility.

"Judges take very unkindly to people lying. If the judge finds somebody’s lying, that almost serves as independent grounds for favoring the other party," he said.

Discussing the prenuptial agreement, Stern said the lack of specificity causes problems. "It forces the courts to make a religious distinction that they probably ought not to be making."

"A vague agreement is not a good idea," he said. "It certainly is an invitation to this sort of difficulty."

Perelman, reputed to be worth $6 billion, has been divorced three times. Duff, a wealthy Democratic fund-raiser, has been divorced four times.

Stern said custody fights over religious holidays occur frequently, and that "it’s not even uncommon for there to be real religious differences between the parties, and people are really fighting about the child’s religious upbringing."

But he added, "More commonly, they’re just fighting because the child is just a weapon to get at the former spouse. It’s hard to know on these facts which category this falls in."

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