A Jerusalem Story

By Ernstoff, Barry | Midstream, November 2001 | Go to article overview

A Jerusalem Story


Ernstoff, Barry, Midstream


When I started practicing law in Jerusalem, some months after our aliyah, an elderly lawyer told me that one of the joys of practicing in Jerusalem was the opportunity of hearing -- or even being a part of -- "a Jerusalem story." Having never heard the term before, I asked him what he meant. He said simply that it is something that could happen only in Jerusalem. Not having much of a mystical sense, I dismissed the discussion as another Israeli enigma. I was reminded of the discussion a few years later, when I experienced my own Jerusalem story.

The story began in the mid-1980s. Having handled the legal work in the administration of the estate of her nephew, I had the opportunity to meet and deal with Yetta. Born in the United States, never married, an 85-year-old retired teacher who came on aliyah more than 20 years before, Yetta was what we used to call a "battle-ax." Thin and never smiling, this crusty old lady made the administration of her nephew's estate more difficult than it had to be.

It was not the first estate I had administered in what was then over 16 years of law practice in the United States and Israel, but she had some critical remark to make about everything connected with the estate -- my legal work, the bank's requirements, the sale of his apartment. She would arrive in my office uninvited and without an appointment, and sit in the reception area until I agreed to see her. Then she would proceed to berate me for my incompetent handling of the estate. I would then thank her for coming and see her to the door. Grabbing her cane, she would shuffle out the door heading in a direction opposite to that of the bus stop. When I once asked her why she did not walk towards the bus, she grunted that the bus fare (in shekels, equal to less than a dollar) was too high and that she would walk home -- for her a walk of about 45 minutes.

I did not see Yetta for a couple of years after that. One day, I received a call from a local mental hospital telling me that Yetta had been admitted in a dazed condition and that she had given them my name as her attorney. Since her nephew's death, she had no close relatives in Israel, and -- my luck -- I was chosen as the person she wanted them to contact. In the earlier estate matter, I had had some dealings with two other nephews in the United States, so I called them and informed them of the telephone call I had received. Acknowledging that Yetta was not a candidate for "Client of the Year," they pleaded with me to get involved, as there was no one else. Ultimately, I went to the hospital, met with her and her doctor, and discovered that Yetta was confused -- and somewhat malnourished -- but not really mentally ill. At the age of almost 88, she was beginning to show signs of some mental deterioration.

At the senior-citizen's residence in which she lived, I spoke with the manager -- who had also experienced Yetta's strong personality. The manager had been the one to call the authorities, when she found Yetta in the apartment obviously having not eaten in a while and in a confused state. She let me into Yetta's small two-room apartment, in which I found piles of what seemed to be uneaten food, garbage, and old clothes. There were scores of unopened envelopes, almost all of them with the return addresses of banks in the United States.

The next day, I hired a student to go through everything in the apartment and to report back to me what she had found. To my great surprise, I was told that in the envelopes were stale interest and dividend checks that added up to over $60,000 -- most of them between six and 12 months old. In addition, the student found bond accounts and bankbooks for 16 different US accounts in Yetta's name, the balances of which added up to almost $600,000! Apparently, after years of handling her own financial affairs, she could no longer do so, as she became older, but had no one to turn to. She just accumulated the envelopes without opening them or dealing with the many accounts. …

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