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An Unorthodox Deal

Kay Lowinger claims she was promised a life of affluence if she converted to her husband's religion, Orthodox Judaism. She kept her part of the bargain, raising her three children in the faith. But when she divorced her husband, she also sued the person who'd made the promise: her mother-in-law.

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It was a three-bedroom colonial on a little hill in Larchmont, nothing special, a rental with a garage, a finished basement, a perfunctory driveway. This was where she was living, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Korean family -- a former child prodigy, a pianist and classical singer -- now a mother of three with no savings, sharing a house with a man she feared.

There was a piano, but she doesn't remember playing it. There were nannies, but none lasted very long. And always there was her husband, Lou, who, she says, rarely seemed to have a job, who forbade her to have visitors or make phone calls.

All that changed, Kay Lowinger recalls, one winter afternoon in 1980, when the bell rang and she opened the door to find a stout Hungarian matron standing outside. It was only the second time Kay had seen her mother-in-law in six years of marriage. She watched, slightly stunned, as Edith Lowinger walked into the living room.

In her low, Middle European accent, Edith explained that she wanted Lou's three young children to be raised as Orthodox Jews, Kay remembers. For that to happen, Kay would have to convert. Edith had anticipated that her Catholic daughter-in-law might not be open to a new religion, and so, Kay says, Edith made her an offer: She would never want for anything, her family would live in a beautiful home, her children would be as accepted as Edith's fourteen other grandchildren, Kay would finally be treated like Edith's other daughters-in-law -- all this if Kay would become a Jew.

A few months later, Kay flew to Israel with Lou and the kids and underwent an Orthodox Jewish conversion. When she returned, their belongings had been moved into a spacious fifties ranch house with separate kitchens for meat and dairy, set on two plush acres in Harrison with a grand semicircular driveway. The day they arrived, Kay says, Edith was waiting with the gift of a new set of linens, and the two women embraced for the first time.

"He's not bad; he's weird," Kay says of Lou. "Something is missing. He's like a little kid without a conscience. That's what's missing."

It was the children who persuaded Kay to leave that home thirteen years later -- and to take them with her. They were teenagers by then, old enough, they said, to see what their father was doing to their mother. First they moved into Kay's sister's house in New Jersey, then to an apartment in Scarsdale that Kay couldn't afford to furnish. As the kids completed courses at the Westchester Day School, an Orthodox yeshiva, Kay sued Lou for divorce. Early on, he offered her a settlement if Kay would move back in, make his meals, and do his laundry. She demurred.

But it's what Kay did next that makes this divorce different from all other divorces. At a standoff with her husband after two years in court, Kay Lowinger sued her mother-in-law for breach of contract -- for failing to honor the promise Kay claimed Edith had made that day in 1980 to support her and her family if she raised her children as Jews.

Tell any divorce lawyer that you want to sue your in-laws for money, and he'll patiently explain that they weren't the ones who signed your marriage certificate, took the vows, pledged their support. But Kay Lowinger's lawyer, Norman Solovay, heard in Edith's alleged promise something special -- an oral contract that could give her and her children access to assets that heretofore had been sealed from them.

Of course, there were obstacles. Edith insists she never promised Kay anything, never left her Borough Park home to visit Kay, never pledged her financial security, never even encouraged her daughter-in-law to convert. "I have never been to Larchmont in my life," Edith, now an unflappable, 77-year-old great-grandmother, said under oath in September, when the civil action finally made it to trial. "Evidently, you can see that this was not a very functional marriage, but that has nothing to do with me."

And there was a second hurdle: No one had even heard a word about the alleged agreement until more than a year into the divorce, when Kay mentioned it to Solovay in passing. "Getting facts out of Kay was like pulling teeth," explains the genteel, white-haired litigator. "This was not something easy for her to discuss. We had all this trouble with Lou's pretense that he didn't have any money, but we knew he did. It really left me with almost no other alternative than to go after the mother."

Edith, Solovay believes, controls one of the largest private fortunes in the country. Her invalid husband, Maurice, is the sole owner of the North American Foreign Trading Corporation, an electronics-import business that established trading relationships with Japan in the forties, just in time for the transistor boom. In 1997 alone, North American did $400 million in business. By then, Maurice had suffered a series of strokes, and Edith was essentially running the business.

The Lowinger family is prominent in the Orthodox Jewish community. While Lou may be something of a prodigal son, Maurice and Edith are Holocaust survivors, both of whom lost their entire families to the Nazis; they are regarded as heroes who helped keep thousands of Jews alive by smuggling food and supplies into the Budapest ghetto. Their other sons' acts of charity on behalf of causes ranging from building yeshivas to providing health care for the poor are well known in the Orthodox world. The notion that an observant Borough Park matriarch like Edith would bribe a non-Jew to convert -- an unambiguous violation of Jewish law -- is all but inconceivable -- unless, of course, she was desperate to do so for the sake of her family.

As soon as Kay's suit was filed, Edith's lawyers moved to have Solovay sanctioned. They called the suit frivolous and claimed First Amendment protection, arguing that the state couldn't enforce a contract that mandated someone's religion. It was nearly two years before a New York State Supreme Court judge allowed the suit to go forward, saying the government enforces all sorts of agreements involving the upbringing of children. The case took on a life of its own: Solovay cited a 1996 case, Lapkin v. Lapkin, in which a daughter-in-law sued in-laws who allegedly had promised her a trust fund. Poor Mrs. Lapkin went on to lose that case, but the strategy, at least, was recognized. "I had dreamed up that complaint with no precedent whatsoever," Solovay marvels now. "Just faith that the system should have some remedy for something like this."


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