Breaking the rules
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Breaking the rules

Comedienne Shashi Ishai on her life, in north Jersey and in Israel

Yacov, Zehava, Shashi, and Zaki Ishai share snacks in Israel. (Shashi Ishai)
Yacov, Zehava, Shashi, and Zaki Ishai share snacks in Israel. (Shashi Ishai)

No smoking, no children, no moving to Israel.

These were the three rules Shashi Charton and Yacov Ishai agreed upon before their marriage 21 years ago at the Clinton Inn in Tenafly.

Now they live in Netanya on Israel’s Mediterranean coast with their two children. Life can be funny sometimes, and Shashi has taken note of this fact since her childhood in North Bergen.

“Ours was the only Jewish family that was downwardly mobile,” quips the comedienne. True story, or so she says: “My father worked two jobs, and his hobby was collecting cheese ends at ShopRite. The appetizing department would put aside the unsliceable cheese ends for him. Unfortunately, he died in a tragic car accident, and the deli guys hung the little cheese flags at half-mast because they loved him so much.”

In the Charton family, everything was perceived through the lens of humor. Shashi delivered standup-comedy eulogies for both her parents, who died seven months apart when she was 37. “I knew they would appreciate that,” she said. “Humor is the flip side of tragedy.”

The Chartons weren’t too surprised when their only daughter announced her intention to go into standup, after finishing a double major in psychology and English literature on a work-study scholarship at Teaneck’s Fairleigh Dickinson University. (“Harvard on the Hackensack,” she calls it.)

“So I made a living temping at offices by day and doing standup at night. I realized that my true passion in life was to make others laugh and feel good. That was consistent, whether I was typing for somebody or entertaining them with jokes and musical parodies.”

Though she later completed a master’s degree and taught English as a second language, humor remained a front-burner pursuit.

Last summer, Shashi was back in Teaneck, where she and Yacov lived from 1997 until making aliyah in 2009, to attend a book party for her self-published “Ask Avigail: Advice from a Biblical Era Sagette,” available on Amazon and Kindle. This compilation of her blogs (many of which appear on the Times of Israel’s website) imagines an ancient version of Dear Abby — a comic device dreamed up by her friend Shneur Garb of Teaneck.

While she was in north Jersey, she tracked down her eighth-grade history teacher, Ray Farley. “We finally met, though we’ve had a delightful correspondence since I found him on Facebook about two years ago,” she said. “He has been a strong influence/personal idol in my life. His wife has bought four copies of my book to send to all her Jewish doctors.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the story of the Ishais’ first meeting, funny enough to tell straight without any comic embellishments.

Shashi was 36 and living in “a beautiful affordable studio in Weehawken. I dated, but there was no lid to fit my pot. I had no real job and no real boyfriend, and I wore that like a virtual sandwich board.”

For Rosh Hashanah, she was to visit her older brother in Virginia Beach, but there was a change of plans and she ended up in her childhood synagogue, Temple Beth-El. Scanning the pews, she noticed a newcomer, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 70.

Shashi asked the usher about this tall, handsome stranger and was told he was “very nice, soft-spoken, and Israeli.”

That last adjective almost killed the romance before it began. “Israelis in America were not a fortuitous thing for me,” she said. “My mother put coins in the pushka every time I broke off with an Israeli boyfriend.”

Nevertheless, Shashi took a seat next to Yacov Ishai and made small talk as the older congregants looked on approvingly. At the end of the service, as they rose from their seats and their arms briefly touched, one woman was heard shouting “A shidduch!”

Shashi worked for a casting director in New York then, “making bupkes,” and when Yacov asked what she was doing the next night, she explained that she had to go to New York to see a show for her boss. “With his limited English, he thought that meant an invitation, so we got our first date by a misunderstanding,” she said.

There was another misunderstanding to be ironed out. “Each of us thought the other was 30 when we met, but on date No. 3 it was revealed that he was 23 and I was nearly 37. I said I never dated anybody that I could give allowance to. But every day after work he picked me up, and he was the antithesis of the Israeli boyfriend nightmare. Everything about us just fit.”

Even the eventual breaking of two of their three rules (neither of them smokes) was by mutual agreement.

First, they decided, seven years into their marriage, to adopt a child. They went to China and took home Zehava Liat, now 14. When she was 6, she asked for a baby brother, so the Ishais went to Guatemala to adopt Zaki — Yitzhak Moshe, named after their two fathers — who is now 8.

When Shashi became a mother, she stopped teaching full time and took a part-time position in the resource room at Bergen Community College.

“All this time I had remained an ardent Zionist because at age 13, the Habonim Labor Zionist movement came to North Bergen and articulated what I couldn’t express in words — that the reason I felt different and couldn’t really fit in was that Judaism was my nationality and essence, not my religion,” she said. “I always carried this around with me. My parents were sympathetic, but they felt American first and Jewish by religion.”

She and Yacov started gravitating toward Orthodox practice, becoming regulars at the Teaneck Chabad House. Having the children made them realize how much they were missing by living so far from Yacov’s large Israeli family, and in 2009 they made the move.

The transition was difficult for Shashi, both linguistically and culturally.

“That first year in Netanya I was pretty miserable,” she said. “We don’t have museums here. I tried to use my Hebrew and sounded ridiculous. I also caught every single germ. At one point I lost it and was ready to go home to America. But I realized we couldn’t afford Jewish life in Bergen County. So I stayed, by default. And after the first year, I felt more comfortable.”

Naturally there are funny stories from that first year — funny in hindsight, anyway. Shashi recalls going out the first time to walk the family’s dog, Stanley (named for former Bank of Israel Chairman Stanley Fischer). She took along a plastic bag for droppings and another plastic bag holding her wig, which needed refurbishing. As she walked, she noticed many different types of receptacles for garbage and recyclables, and became confused.

“I saw an elegantly dressed woman — she must have been French — put a garbage bag in a receptacle and so I put the dog’s poop (or so I thought) in that same receptacle, and then went to the wig place and handed her what I thought was the wig. Whoops.

“I had a vision of me being deported.”

Shashi learned she could catch a jitney to Tel Aviv’s many museums, and discovered that Netanya is small enough so that she knows everybody and everybody knows her, or at least Stanley. And she’s rekindled her passion for secondhand and vintage shops now that she knows where to find them. “For me, to buy retail is a sin worse than idolatry.”

The children are well assimilated into a bilingual Israeli life, and Yacov works with a childhood friend of Shashi’s in ParkAndWillow.com, a New York-based online food and beverage distributor.

No smoking, no children, no moving to Israel? What a joke.

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