The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Story

Algonquin Books  2005

Storyteller Joel ben Izzy draws us in to The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness with a variation on the Talmudic tale of King Solomon who, desiring to learn about illusion, is tricked by the King of Demons into taking off his magic ring and must journey then as a beggar. Everything which had given the king his identity is now lost. Ben Izzy wraps this traditional story around his own personal story of a critical recent time when he, too, traveled through a metaphoric desert after an operation to remove a growth in his throat left him as a storyteller without a voice. Adding another layer, each of the fourteen chapters opens with a folktale, often humorous, from Sufi Muslim, Chinese, Jewish, Iraqi, Zen Buddhist, Italian and Indian cultures. Telling stories is Joel ben Izzy’s life. He has a wonderful sense of dramatic timing and a professional’s heart for selecting folklore to introduce what he wants us to know about his own life. The whole is a powerful little book about healing.

Earning his livelihood as a storyteller was not always easy. “Yet even as the tentacles of despair began to tighten around me, something would always come up— usually. The next gig. And when I got there, I had a story to tell. Therein lay the beauty of my profession; whatever did not kill me made for a story, and as long as I could tell that story, all was well.” In his own story, ben Izzy meets Taly and falls in love. They get married and have two children and move into an old house in Berkeley. And then, into this picture of happiness comes the doctor’s diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer. Joel ben Izzy has an operation which leaves one of his vocal cords paralyzed. It is difficult for him to speak beyond a hoarse whisper. Suddenly, ben Izzy can no longer do what he does best. The “tentacles of despair” tighten around him, but there is no next gig. 

Applying folkloric structure to his own tale, ben Izzy reaches for emotional truth. He moves in a narrative sequence of emotions, rather than time. We are inside his story as if it were a timeless tale. From the diagnosis of cancer bursting the bubble of his happiness, Joel ben Izzy speaks of his father’s struggles, dreams and many failures with both livelihood and health in the San Gabriel Valley. He shares the Chelm stories his mother used to tell the children in the car, though she did not see herself as a storyteller—that was her father, Grandpa Izzy, from whom Joel takes his name, Joel “son of” Izzy. Joel ben Izzy discovers his avocation as a boy when he sees how his stories cheer his mother up. He tells us how he showed up on Lenny’s doorstep after hearing him tell stories in a Santa Cruz pub and how contentious Lenny became his mentor. Lenny would build him up, inspire him, challenge him, help him, give generously of himself and then drive ben Izzy away with ego-shattering cruelty. 

All the while, we feel Joel ben Izzy’s suffering as he can no longer tell his children bedtime stories or earn his living with what he had once done so well. The Chinese tale speaks, “What seems like a blessing may be a curse. What seems like a curse may be a blessing.” A chance encounter brings Lenny back into Joel’s life. He returns the grey fedora, his talisman, to Lenny who throws it into the stove. Once ben Izzy truly has nothing, he is receptive to the world around him in a new way. In his silence, he becomes an appreciative listener. His mother always used the Yiddish expression, “When a door closes, a window opens.” Now she tells Joel family stories he never heard before. Rather than feeling sorry for himself and his lost life, ben Izzy begins to savor what is out there, like the Zen monk at the edge of a cliff who plucks the ripe strawberry from a vine although he knows he is about to fall. 

In the end, King Solomon returns to his throne after fifty years, though to his advisors he was gone but one hour. It was a lifetime of compassion and wisdom the king learns in that time he is lost and without friends. What about Joel ben Izzy? Will he/does he get his voice back? Even if you never heard the liveliness and warmth, the humor in ben Izzy’s performances in person or on CD, the reader roots for him to emerge from the desert. Ben Izzy tells us this is “a true story.” In Chapter 5, he speaks of a man who searches for Truth only to discover that she is ugly, but Truth asks him when he goes back out into the world to tell people that she is young and beautiful. 

What is the truth here? Stories are ben Izzy’s world. Folktales are his literary touchstones. They speak to him. Through folklore, Joel ben Izzy found a way out of his pain. Lenny advises ben Izzy, “...telling stories is not about the words you say. When you have a story inside you, an open heart, you become a conduit – the story flows through you.” By interweaving an autobiographical tale with folklore, ben Izzy takes the chance that this story will speak to the humanity of the reader, too, and carry us beyond our own pain. And it does.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of JBC Book Clubs

  1. Of all of the stories in this book, the author chose two, The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness, to create the title. Why those two stories? What is the message of each of those two stories?

  2. Which story resonated the most with you? Which story had the strongest message? From which story do you think you learned the most?

  3. On p. 102, Lenny tells Joel never to interrupt a story and never assume you know the ending, even if you've heard it before. Why? Are there stories, in literature or in your own life, that have changed in meaning?

  4. The concept of truth is an ongoing theme of this book, both in life and in the stories (including the Indian story "The Search for Truth"). On p. 9, Lenny claims that it makes no difference if a story is true--"a good story is true, whether it happened or not. And a bad story--even if it happened--is a lie." What does he mean by this? Do you agree?

  5. What is truth with a capital T (p 9)? How does Joel find this Truth? Think about (or reread) your favorite story from the book. Did you discover a new grain of Truth?

  6. Do you consider this book uplifting and hopeful? Would you think of it differently had Joel not regained his voice?

  7. Lenny frequently commands Joel to view his life as a story, and to find the message of the story. What does it mean to see your life as a story? How does one look at one's life as a story? How does that perspective differ from a one-day-at-a-time approach or simply living and reacting to life?

  8. When Joel first meets Lenny, Lenny tells a story about a rabbi quizzing a young student. At the end, the rabbi tells the student that he wastes his time looking for answers when he should be asking questions. What does this mean? How is it reflected throughout the book?

  9. The role of God in determining one's life is discussed throughout the book in different ways. What are the perspectives of the people in the book? How are they similar and how are they different? Do they allow for free will?

  10. At the end, Joel says that while he agrees with Taly that God doesn't micromanage, he can't believe that there is no reason to anything that happens. He says that perhaps the reason is one that we create, after the fact (p 211). How is this reflected in the story "The Lost Horse" (p 11)? Which other stories contain this message? What in Joel's life is a blessing and what is a curse?

  11. What role does silence take on over the course of the story? How does listening change Joel's understanding?

  12. Is there a story that you would tell Joel?

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