Q&A with Joel ben Izzy: Stories are a way to connect Jews to Judaism, says renowned Jewish storyteller

By Cindy Mindell

Joel ben Izzy

BERKELEY, Calif. – Joel ben Izzy of Berkeley, Calif. has been telling stories for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1983, after he earned a degree in storytelling from Stanford. He has gathered stories from his travels and work throughout the world, many of which he has collected on seven award-winning recordings.
Ben Izzy will be the featured guest artist at a joint communal Selichot program on Shabbat, Sept. 8, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, co-sponsored by Congregation B’nai Israel of Bridgeport.
Rabbi Daniel Victor of Rodeph Sholom approached ben Izzy after reading the storyteller’s book, “The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Story.” Much of the inspiration behind the title story came from ben Izzy’s struggle to regain his voice, lost to a serious illness in 1997.
“Adults and children alike face issues of searching and discovery, things that rock your world that you have to find your way back from,” Victor says. “Joel tells stories – personal ones as well – about finding the way back after getting knocked off balance, no matter how small that thing may be. As Jews, we have a master story and everywhere you turn, the story is there, especially when we gather to celebrate a holiday. This is the perfect way to get into the mood for the High Holiday season and the start of a new year.”
Ben Izzy gave the Ledger his own take on the secret of happiness and the power of stories, and how the two intersect.

Q: What has your Jewish journey been like?
A: I grew up in the suburbs of the suburbs of the suburbs of Los Angeles, in the San Gabriel Valley, in Temple City, where there were very few Jews. I went to a Conservative temple in Arcadia, a few miles north. I was involved in Hillel at Stanford. When I started studying storytelling, I first focused on old Jewish folktales – stories of Chelm, the shtetl tales of Eastern Europe – and took Jewish-studies courses. As a Jewish storyteller, my work has continually taken me into Jewish situations and I learn by doing. I often found work teaching in religious schools, helping to connect students to Jewish values through stories. I’ve told stories at a lot of services, from b’nai mitzvah to weddings, and given a lot of guest lectures at temples and been on so many retreats with Jewish organizations.
My wife recently co-founded a small synagogue in Berkeley, associated with Coastside Jewish Community 20 miles south of the Bay Area, run by a cantor and maggid (spiritual leader). We loved it so much and so many people were schlepping from our area that we opened a branch. The maggid is a continual inspiration to me. We meet at people’s houses and I tell stories at various events.
People are always turning to me for Jewish knowledge. In our community, we have a lot of Jews who are Jewish but who don’t quite understand what that means, and stories are an accessible way for them to connect.

Q: Can you identify Jewish values and/or role models you encountered while growing up?
A: As a family, we very much believed in tzedakah and tikkun olam; we were definitely a liberal, progressive family who associated with Jewish values. As for role models, I admired Harry Houdini, because I used to do magic shows growing up and I was interested in escaping from the suburbs. I found my way to a life of adventure – first I got a scholarship to Stanford in northern California, then I left to travel the world and search for the meaning of life. I returned to Stanford and created my major in storytelling, cobbled together from mythology, independent study, creative writing, and drama. I’ve never actually had a job; I’ve only done storytelling.

Q: Did you find the meaning of life?
A: I found an answer: it’s not something we find out there but something we make, and the process of making and looking at the good and bad things that happen, healing the world, creating the meaning – the residue is story, the little treasures we take away to hold onto the meaning we make. As to the old idea that you’ll go and find “it,” I think you may find lots of things that give meaning, but “it” ends up coming from the actions you take on behalf of the world and other people.

Q: What kinds of stories do you encounter day to day? What makes a good story?
A: Where do you hear good stories? Online, everywhere. Last week I heard Obama say that his biggest regret from his first term was that he didn’t do a good job telling the story of what he wanted to accomplish. Then Romney said, “Presidents aren’t supposed to tell stories but just lead.” Last night I heard someone talking about making lutefisk and what a disaster it was and how lutefisk may have killed their grandmother. Part of the work of a storyteller is letting the story swirl around inside and waiting for it to tap you on the shoulder.
Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch was known as the “Maggid of Mezeritch,” because he was a great storyteller – he would do a wedding, do a drash, and always had the perfect story. One day, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna asked him how he did it. The Maggid told the story of a prince who loved archery. He was good but wanted to get better, so he went off to a distant academy and after 10 years he was as good as any of the others there, and they sent him home. On the way, he stops in a little village and sees, on the side of a barn, 10 painted bull’s-eyes, and in the exact center of each, an arrow. He finds a farmer nearby and asks who is responsible for the 10 bull’s-eyes and the farmer says, “My son, Yeckel, did this.” The prince asks for Yeckel, and here’s this little, snot-nosed kid, and the prince asks, “How did you do that? What’s your secret?” Yeckel says, “It’s easy. I take the bow, I pull the arrow back real hard, and I shoot it into the side of the barn. And then I draw the bull’s-eye around the arrow. That’s how it is with a story: I listen with open ears and an open heart, I wait for the right occasion, and I tell the right story.

Q: You lost your voice in 1997. What happened?
A: I had been traveling around the world telling stories for 15 years and thought I had it all figured out, because as a storyteller you have this wonderful gift where, if anything good happens in your life, that’s good, but if anything bad happens, you have a story to tell. I had pretty much decided that I had found the secret of happiness but I didn’t spit three times like any smart person would do. I think of what my father said: “People make plans and God laughs.”
One day, I woke up – it was Purim – with gout, and with three shows to do. My policy was never ever to go to a doctor if I could possibly avoid it, but as I was hugging my little daughter goodbye, she stepped on my toe and it was the most pain I can ever remember experiencing. When I got to the doctor, the endocrinologist wanted to examine my neck and he found a little tiny bump, and wanted to aspirate it – and out came a needle that was so long… In the end, he said, “You’re young and healthy and the chances you have to worry are one in one-thousand.”
Two weeks later, on my son’s fifth birthday, I got the call: I had thyroid cancer. It turned out that there was a lot of cancer and, in removing it, my vocal chords were damaged. I woke up and couldn’t talk. The doctor said, “Give it a month,” and after a month, I couldn’t talk and he said, “Give it two months,” and after two months, I still couldn’t talk and he said, “This will be permanent. I hope this doesn’t affect your work.”
That led me on a journey to learn a lot about stories, about listening, and about letting go. Rabbi Victor thought my story would be good to share on Selichot, which is a time of preparation, a time of letting go, looking at lessons learned from the year, and going on to the next year.

Q: “The Beggar King” is about King Solomon. What attracts you to Solomon as a character?
A: Solomon stories are synonymous with wisdom in Jewish tradition, and I’ve always liked the boundary between wisdom and foolishness. You have Solomon and the fools of Chelm, but there’s wisdom in the foolishness of Chelm and foolishness in the wisdom of Solomon, and a nice connection between the two. I had long loved the story of the beggar king, Solomon’s journey of losing everything. When I lost my voice and found that my life as the father of two young children, as a husband, as a storyteller, went right down the toilet, I went back to that story because I felt that I had fallen right into it.

Q: Did you experience any kind of crisis of faith?
A: Definitely. I wondered what God had in mind. It was a big crisis of faith and I think it’s very hard to be looking at the world we live in and see some of the things that happen without saying, “What on earth? Why?” When I recovered, I felt like I was given a really wonderful gift, because I didn’t think I’d be able to speak again. After getting the gift, I felt that it was an obligation that I needed to find ways to use the ability to speak to help others in the world, to offer stories to help them find their way.

Q: Why are the High Holidays a good time for storytelling? What are the types of stories that can be most transformative at this time of year?
A: Stories help us remember and make meaning of things. When we do Tashlich, look through the crumbs in our pockets, there are certain things we want to let go of and others we want to learn from. Stories are what let us hold on to the lessons while we let go of what we need to let go of.
Personal stories can be really transformative – many folktales told traditionally at the holidays or that are worked into drashim. When people tell their own stories about reaching a turning point, changing direction, letting something go, hitting a wall, forgiving – which is really hard to do – they help inspire other people.
To tell your own story, you have to create a time and place for it to be heard. So much of getting a story right is getting the audience ready to hear it. Last night at dinner, the conversation came up around the question, what is a food that changed your life? In the right setting, everybody becomes a natural storyteller. You step back and look at what you found and say, what of this will be of interest to share with other people? Using stories and storytelling as part of a spiritual path takes looking back and saying, what have I learned?
For more information on the Sept. 8 S’lichot program featuring storyteller Joel ben Izzy: / (203) 334-0159.

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