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

By – August 15, 2013

Sto­ry­teller Joel ben Izzy draws us in toThe Beg­gar King and the Secret of Hap­pi­ness with a vari­a­tion on the Tal­mu­dic tale ofK­ing 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 par​a​lyzed​.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 aSan­ta Cruz pub and how con­tentiousLen­ny 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 bringsLen­ny 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 know she 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 benIzzy’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, benIzzy 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.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she has been help­ing stu­dents vis­it­ing 826 Valen­cia loca­tions around the city to write sto­ries and poems and get­ting adults up and retelling Jew­ish folk­tales to share with their own spin. 

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of JBC Book Clubs

    • 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?

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

    • 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?

    • 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?

    • 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?

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

    • 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?

    • 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?

    • 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?

    • 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?

    • What role does silence take on over the course of the sto­ry? How does lis­ten­ing change Joel’s understanding?

    • Is there a sto­ry that you would tell Joel?