Martha Smilgis
April 30, 1979 12:00 PM

Divorce, child custody, alimony. For Cher, it was a depressingly familiar litany. But as Esther Shapiro, 35, told a New York TV audience of her seven-year struggle for her two young sons, the former Mrs. Bono Allman, in from L.A. to see friends, was moved to action. Twice divorced, with two children of her own, the star phoned Esther, a junior high music teacher, to offer the services of her West Coast lawyers, Rudin & Pearlstein. “It’s quite simple,” Cher explained later. “It was just one mother helping another.”

Shapiro’s tale of woe, however, proved to be anything but simple. Her appeal of a Brooklyn family court decision awarding custody of the boys—Aryeh, 13, and Ayton, 11—to their Orthodox Jewish father may be the final chapter in a tangled domestic intrigue. Her ex-husband, Robert Eller, 50, is an ordained rabbi who teaches math in a New York high school. They first met on a singles’ weekend at Grossinger’s in 1965 and married within four months. “I like my religion,” says Esther, who was herself raised in a kosher home, “but I thought I was marrying someone modern. My roots were Middle American; his turned out to be fanatic Hasidism.”

After six stormy years she and Eller were divorced in 1971. Custody of the children was eventually awarded to their father, a decision Shapiro blames on antagonism toward her in the Jewish community and lack of funds to make her case. “It’s a myth about a woman getting the kids,” she declares. “You need $5,000 up front for lawyers or you’ll be shafted.”

The decision was obviously affected by statements from Esther’s own family—her mother, aunt and two sisters—challenging her fitness as a parent. In the end, she was found to have “physically and emotionally neglected” her sons. Shapiro says she had no money to file an appeal, but while she was visiting her children in 1974 Ayton held a knife to his stomach and pleaded to be taken home with her. Soon afterward she abducted both children, taking them first to London, then back to New York and finally to San Francisco, where she went on welfare.

Eller tracked her down, and his sons were returned to him. Shapiro took them again in 1976. The FBI arrested her more than a year later in Cincinnati, making her the first woman in the U.S. ever to be charged with abducting her own children. “It was a shame,” she says bitterly. “We were settled. I had a good job, an apartment, a car. The boys were in a school for the performing arts. Now they’ve seen their mother in handcuffs.”

Back in New York, Shapiro was acquitted of a charge of “custodial interference.” Today she lives quietly in a Brooklyn apartment—five minutes from her sons and ex-husband—but he has refused to let her see the boys. To her disgust, they now attend a strict Orthodox yeshiva and, she suspects, don’t even play baseball. “I was robbed of a normal childhood by the yeshiva bullshit, and now so are they,” she rages. “I imagine they are being told they lived in sin when they were with their mother.” Finally, with Cher in her corner, she says she will press for the enforcement of her legal visiting privileges and will continue the battle for custody. “The children have to know you still want them,” she explains.

Eller’s lawyer, Leo Silber, points out, however, that Shapiro has twice violated visitation rights by running away with her children. “The first time she was found sleeping with them on the lawn of a Buddhist temple in San Mateo County at 1 a.m. in 40-degree weather,” he says. “She has been declared an unfit mother before, and she has not shown it to be any different.” The ultimate judgment, Shapiro says wearily, will come from the children. “At 30 they will figure it all out.”

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