—San Francisco Chronicle
The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Storyby Joel ben Izzy
The Beggar Kind and the Secret of Happiness is an altogether original true story about a storyteller who loses his voice and believes he's lost everything.
An encounter with his old teacher shows him that, in fact, he's been given a great gift. Their meetings lead him on a journey into the timeless wisdom of ancient tales—a world of beggars and kings/em>… See more details below
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The Beggar Kind and the Secret of Happiness is an altogether original true story about a storyteller who loses his voice and believes he's lost everything.
An encounter with his old teacher shows him that, in fact, he's been given a great gift. Their meetings lead him on a journey into the timeless wisdom of ancient tales—a world of beggars and kings, monks and tigers, lost horses and buried treasures—and, ultimately, toward the secret of happiness.
—San Francisco Chronicle
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
Story Origin: China The Lost Horse
Long ago in a village in northern China, there lived a man who owned a magnificent horse. So beautiful was this horse that people came from miles around just to admire it. They told him he was blessed to own such a horse.
"Perhaps," he said. "But what seems like a blessing may be a curse."
One day, the horse ran off. It was gone. People came to say how sorry they were for his bad luck.
"Perhaps," he said. "But what seems like a curse may be a blessing."
A few weeks later, the horse returned. It was not alone. It was followed by twenty-one wild horses. By the law of the land, they became his property. He was rich with horses.
His neighbors came to congratulate him on his good fortune. "Truly," they said, "you have been blessed."
"Perhaps. But what seems like a blessing may be a curse."
Shortly after that his son-his only son-tried to ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown from it and broke his leg. The man's neighbors came to say how sorry they were. Surely, he had been cursed. "Perhaps," he said. "But what seems like a curse may be a blessing."
A week later, the king came through that village, drafting every able-bodied young man for a war against the people of the north. It was a horrible war. Everyone who went from that village was killed. Only that man's son survived, because of his broken leg.
To this day, in that village, they say, "What seems like a blessing may be a curse. What seems like a curse may be a blessing."
Chapter One The Lost Horse
Just how I came to be a storyteller is a story in itself, a tale of curses turned to blessings. I certainly wasn't born into the art, though I've met many who were. In a pub at the southernmost tip of Ireland I heard a genuine seanachie, who sang the ancient ballads with such resonance that you could hear the ghosts of his ancestors singing the chorus. In the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem I came to know a Hassidic maggid who could trace his lineage back to Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the great eighteenth-century mystic teller of tales. And once, on the north shore of Oahu, in Hawaii, I shared the stage with a woman who had been chosen as treasurer of five thousand years' worth of her ancestors' stories. Me, I had no such credentials, and it always left me feeling a little embarrassed among other storytellers. I had grown up in the least magical place on earth, the suburbs of the suburbs to the east of Los Angeles. Where my family lived there were no movie stars, no beaches-no water of any sort, for that matter. In fact, there was no geography at all, as far as we could tell; though we were told of purple mountains to the north, we could not see them through the smog.
It was called the San Gabriel Valley-not to be confused with "the Valley," which is so well known. Ours was "the Other Valley," a world flat and square, with relentlessly straight streets leading to freeways in every direction. Those freeways led to other freeways which led to still more freeways. As far as I knew, this was the world.
I can't say I grew up in a home filled with stories, either. The truth is, stories take time, and my parents' time was spent trying to keep our world from crumbling, as they struggled against poverty and my father's failing health. We belonged to the descending middle class, and my father had tumbled through a dozen careers in an effort to keep us from falling any further. He dreamed of great things for our family, and when those plans inevitably failed he would shrug off the loss with a joke or a proverb. I suppose these might have grown into longer stories had they not been interrupted, usually by the ringing of the telephone. He would rush to answer it, not wanting to miss that all-important call, the one that would surely make us rich, the one that would get our family off welfare, the one that never came.
As for my mother, she didn't actually tell us stories, but rather referred to them as she drove us around town. "You must have heard the stories about Chelm? You know, the Jewish town of fools?"
"No, we haven't," my brothers and I would say. "Tell us!"
"Chelm," she'd repeat, a dreaminess in her voice coming through the guttural sound of the word. "You must have heard about it. It's in Poland. Where it snows all the time. Oh, they were the most wonderful stories."
"Tell us one now!"
"Oh, we used to love them. There was one about the Chelmites building their temple, carrying logs down from the top of a mountain-but I'm no storyteller," she would apologize. "Your Grandpa Izzy was. We could sit and listen to him for hours." She would then trail off, leaving a picture in my mind of Grandpa Izzy, the great storyteller from the faraway city of Cleveland. Years later, when I began telling stories, I would take his name for my own-Joel ben Izzy, Hebrew for "Joel, son of Izzy." But I did not know that at the time. All I knew was that something magical was missing and in its stead we had smog. We rolled up our windows to keep it out, and the station wagon became a vacuum, filled with untold stories, winding its way through the endless suburbs.
It was the absence of magic that sent me looking for it, and I remember the day I found it. I must have been about five. My two older brothers were at school and I was in the supermarket with my mother. I could see she was miserable. Though I didn't know it, she had just learned that my father would need to go to the hospital for another operation, this one for his cataracts. I wanted some way to make her happy, and I found it in the produce section.
"Mommy," I said. "Look over there! That eggplant-it looks like Nixon!"
The resemblance was indeed amazing-with the top of the eggplant curled over like his nose-but not nearly so amazing as my mother's face, which lit up with laughter. What a wonderful thing to make her laugh, to pull her out of her misery, if only for a moment. A few words, and the darkness went away.
I started collecting jokes and telling them to her whenever I could. It worked with my father, too, and when I managed to make him laugh, what came out was hearty and full, the laughter of a healthy man. Then I would laugh, and it was at these times I felt close to him. I became a performer for my parents, doing puppet shows and comic routines. I told jokes and stories in the hospital when my father was there, and every night at bedtime, to my mother. She would come into my room, sit on the bed, exhausted from her life. "Joel," she would say, "tell me a story."
I had no idea that I had found my life's work. But I did know that I loved telling stories to my mother. I told of a world far beyond the one we knew, a land with smogless skies, where poor people became rich and sick people became healthy. With each story that world became more real to me; I could see it reflected in my mother's eyes. And I knew it was that world to which I would someday escape. Jewish culture is rich with curses-"May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground and your ass in the air." "May you live like a chandelier-hang by day and burn by night." "May all your teeth rot and fall out but one, and in that one may you have the toothache from hell." Of all the curses I've heard, though, the strangest may well be this one: "May you do what you love for a living." Indeed, it sounds not like a curse at all, but the title of a self-help book that would sell well where I live, in Berkeley. Yet I had come to understand it, in the many years it had taken to turn my love of stories into a livelihood. "Traveling storyteller" isn't exactly a can't-miss career choice, and more than once I'd found myself ready to give it up. Stuck in the rain, with no money and no work, in Manchester. Sick and unable to work in Tel Aviv. Broke and burned out in the subways of Tokyo, wondering what the hell I was doing. Then a voice inside my head would say, "For God's sake, Joel, why can't you get a real job, something that pays? How about law school?" It wasn't the voice of my parents; on the contrary, they loved my stories and were thrilled that I had gone off to chase my dreams. No, it was simply the voice of reason. Time and again I would bump and skid down to what I thought was the bottom, and just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, they did. 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. With that discovery, the work began to roll in, and I found myself able to pursue another dream, one so near to my heart that I had scarcely let myself consider it. I would marry a wonderful woman and raise a family. Our children would know a childhood as different as could be from my own, with healthy parents and money in the bank, far from the suburbs I had known. They would grow up in a home filled with magic, laughter-and stories.
The wonderful woman showed up one night at a party, where I was telling stories. I fell in love as soon as I saw her. She liked me, too, I could tell. But she had dreams of her own, and in none of them had it ever occurred to her that she might hitch her fortunes to that of a traveling storyteller. This was clear from the first words she spoke to me. "So, what's your real job?"
Her name was Taly, and winning her over took three years and everything I had. It wasn't just my offbeat career choice; adept as I was before a crowd, I floundered miserably when it came to intimate relationships. Joan Baez said it best: "The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one." Like so many men, I had no idea how to talk about my feelings. Over the next three years, I learned a great deal about how to be with someone, not as a member of my audience, but as a friend and partner, and we turned our attraction into a marriage. It was not easy at first; anyone who has been married knows that it takes work. But we did the work, and as we did, our love grew. We settled into a hundred-year-old redwood house, tucked away in the hills behind the UC Berkeley campus. And it was there, on the back porch, that we sat on a beautiful afternoon in early spring, watching our son and daughter, who were trying to rake up the leaves as they fell from the oak trees in the yard. The first of that year's freesias had just opened, and the air was filled with the scent of their yellow blooms. I looked around, took a deep breath, and suddenly realized that I had made it. That's when I whispered the words.
"Now I am completely happy."
I don't even think Taly heard me. If she had, she would have responded by spitting three times, the traditional Jewish gesture to keep away the evil eye. But I wasn't worried about the evil eye, or anything else. Nothing could stop me, I believed. When I donned my gray fedora, I could talk any curse into a blessing. You see, I thought I had found the secret of happiness. And I planned on being happy for a very long time. "People make plans and God laughs." That's what my father used to say. The Yiddish expression was a favorite of his, one I heard him say at least a thousand times. Still, I must have missed something. Otherwise I would not have been foolish enough to announce my happiness.
It was the morning after my statement that God saw fit to laugh. The day was Purim, appropriately enough, the Jewish holiday that celebrates twists and turns of fate. The story behind the day tells of an evil man who had plotted to kill all the Jews, but failed to realize that the queen was Jewish. In the end, he meets his death on the very gallows he had built for others, while everyone else celebrates. In that sense it's a classic Jewish holiday: "They tried to kill us. They didn't. Let's eat!"
I awoke that morning from a bizarre dream in which I had climbed down the stairs in our house, lifted the piano high above my head, then dropped it onto my right big toe. The strange thing was that, on waking, I found my toe was actually swollen and throbbing with a magnificent pain.
"You'd better call the doctor," Taly said when she saw it.
"Don't be silly. It's nothing."
"Joel, something's wrong. Look at your toe! My God-it looks like it's going to explode! Call the doctor."
I had always avoided doctors, having seen more than enough ushering my father to his death. Taly, on the other hand, lives by the motto, "Cancer until proven otherwise." As a result, she makes frequent trips to doctors and almost always comes back with good news. "Joel, would you call the doctor?" she said again at breakfast, as I finished my oatmeal.
"Look, it's nothing. It'll go away."
"You can barely walk! How can you perform like that?" she asked later, as I was halfway out the door, my storytelling bag in one hand and an armload of Purim costumes in the other, running late to the first of three gigs.
"No problem. I'll tell them the story of Hillel." Hillel was a great Jewish scholar who had once been challenged to explain all the teaching in the Torah while standing on one foot. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he said. "The rest is commentary." She didn't buy it. With a sigh, I took off my hat, put down the costumes, and stood on both feet, balancing to show I was fine.
Before she could make her point, our two-year-old daughter, Michaela, made it for her. Running up to hug me good-bye, she stepped on my right toe. I howled in pain, dropping to the floor. Taly helped me up and handed me the phone.
The advice nurse heard my story and didn't miss a beat.
"Gout," she said.
"Gout," she repeated. "It's called the 'rich man's disease.'"
"I know what it's called. My father had it."
Among his constellation of illnesses, gout had always struck me as particularly unfair, precisely because of the moniker. It was a disease from another era, befitting wealthy statesmen in colonial days, back when there was nothing you could do but prop up your foot and moan about King George. Now, I learned from the nurse, there was a pill that would make it go away in a matter of hours. She had a doctor write a prescription, faxed it to the pharmacy, and scheduled a follow-up appointment. I took the pill and, sure enough, the gout vanished as quickly as it came. It has never bothered me since.
I didn't give the gout another thought until June, when I found myself in a doctor's office for the follow-up appointment. I sat on the paper-covered patients' table, smiling at the doctor, who smiled back at me. He was a soft-spoken Arabic man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who, I saw on his diplomas, bore the name Ishmael. I liked him, despite my misgivings about doctors. I've spent hours drinking mint tea and discussing philosophy with Arab merchants in the marketplace in Jerusalem, and his office reminded me of that, except instead of trinkets and rugs, it was filled with brochures on topics like "You and Your Prostate." As neither of us could figure out why I was there, he went to the computer and punched in my record number. "Gout?" he said. "You have gout?" "I had gout. Once. Last March. It only lasted a day." Once he got to the medical questions, I started to fidget. It was the same in the marketplace, when the topic of "rugs" would inevitably come up. "Well, as long as you're here, let me examine you." He began to feel my neck. "I don't think that's my foot," I said, "but you're the doctor." His hand was warm.
"There's nothing to be done about your foot. The gout is gone. But I'm an endocrinologist. Necks are my specialty." "Good thing you're not a proctologist!" The idea of an exam made me nervous, and I began making jokes. "Say, can I call you Ishmael?"
"Call me what you'd like," he said. He paused at one spot and probed a little deeper, looking away, concentrating on what he was feeling. "Did you know you have a little bump in your throat?"
"I have lots of little bumps in my throat. That's what a throat is."
"But you have an extra bump that shouldn't be here."
"I shouldn't be here, doc, the gout is gone . . ." I stopped speaking when he opened a drawer and pulled out a tray filled with medical implements that looked like something from a horror film. "Given your age and general health, chances that it's anything to worry about are one in a thousand," he said. "Just the same, I'd like to aspirate it. To be on the safe side."
He held up a hypodermic needle the size of a turkey baster.
"That's your idea of 'the safe side'?"
There are some words life does not prepare you to hear, words like, "You have cancer."
I had heard far too much about the disease as a child, as family friends and relatives were afflicted. Grown-ups spoke of it in hushed tones, and the softer they spoke, the closer I listened. I noticed that women's tumors were described in terms of fruit, men's in terms of sports.
"Did you hear about Cousin Sadie? It was the size of an orange!"
"And you know that nice man, Mr. Friedman, with the shoe store? In his stomach. A baseball."
"Oy! Like my Aunt Sophie-a papaya."
But cancer was a disease for other people, older people-sick people, for God's sake. I was thirty-seven and in good health, so it wasn't even a possibility lurking in the corners of my imagination on that hot July afternoon, my son's fifth birthday. I had placed five candles on the cake and was just putting on the sixth for good luck when the phone rang.
"I'll get it!" I said, licking chocolate frosting from my fingers.
"Let the machine get it," shouted Taly from the other room.
"But it's probably my mom," I said, picking it up. "Elijah-remember, Grandma Gladys has trouble hearing, so speak loudly and clearly. Okay?"
"Joel?" It was Ishmael. "I've got news. I'm afraid you're one in a thousand."
He talked for several minutes, but I only absorbed a few words here and there.
". . . papillary thyroid cancer . . ."
". . . partial versus full thyroidectomy . . ."
". . . five years, disease-free survival rate . . ."
Taly had lit the candles and was motioning me to get off the phone. Then she saw the look on my face.
I stared at her blankly, trying to come up with another word for "cancer."
Finally, I gave up and brushed the question aside. "Nothing, really. We'll be fine. C'mon-before the candles burn down!"
That night, I tucked the kids in and told them their bedtime stories, as always. Then I went downstairs, where I found Taly waiting for me, pacing.
"Joel, what is it?"
I thought humor might be the best way to break the news to her. "Do you remember that line in When Harry Met Sally? Where Billy Crystal says, 'Don't worry, it's just one of those twenty-four-hour tumors'?"
Her face went pale. "A tumor? Cancer? You have cancer?"
"Just a little cancer. Thyroid cancer. But the doctor said that if you have to have cancer, this is a good kind to have."
She looked baffled. "Good cancer? What are you talking about?"
I fumbled for an explanation, but the words would not come. Looking in her eyes, I could see she was terrified, but she tried to comfort me.
"But it will be okay," she said, nodding.
"Won't it?" I nodded back. "This is treatable, right?" Cancer had long been her greatest fear. "You'll be alright. And we'll be alright. Right?"
"That's right," I assured her, regaining my footing. "A blip on the radar screen, nothing more."
Surfacing from general anesthesia felt a bit like waking up with jet lag after a long trip. For a moment I lay there, my eyes closed, no idea where I was, nothing but that strange disorientation and sense of anticipation that comes with the start of an adventure. Keeping my eyes closed tight, I wondered what world awaited me-Budapest? Katmandu? Shanghai? When I opened them, I noticed the machinery, saw tubes in my arms, and felt pain everywhere.
"Some adventure this is . . ." I started to say. I stopped. Something was wrong. I tried again. "Some adventure . . ." Nothing came out.
Again and again I tried to say something, anything. I tried to call out for Taly. A wave of panic surged through me and my heart began to pound. And only then did I realize what was happening. It was a dream, of course, nothing more. I'd often had dreams like this, usually before a big performance, where I found myself suddenly unable to talk. I would be standing before a large audience, trying to tell a story, and no words would come out of my mouth.
What a relief. A nightmare, nothing more. I tried to remember what performance it was, but couldn't. So I did the only thing I could do and waited for the dream to end.
All around me I heard hospital sounds. Nurses chatting, machinery beeping, footsteps in the hallway. Every few moments I tried to talk. Nothing but air came out.
It was only as sunlight streamed through the window that I realized I was not dreaming. I was wide awake, but could no longer speak.
My horse was gone.
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