The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Story
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“Heartwarming and smart and wonderfully written” (Detroit Free Press).
“Provides edifying advice, intimately given, like the best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie” (the Dallas Morning News).
“Altogether original” (Dr. Laura Schlessinger).
“This story will speak to the humanity of the reader” (Jewish Book World).
The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness is that rare, magical book—a book that tells a good story but also shows us how the tales we learned when we were children shed light on our adult lives. Joel ben Izzy had the unusual opportunity to relive those lessons when he lost his voice and reconnected with his old teacher, Lenny, a retired storyteller. Through his meetings with Lenny, Joel rediscovers the wisdom of ancient tales and takes us on a journey into a world of beggars and kings, monks and tigers, lost horses and buried treasures—and in the end tells us the secret of happiness.
time. Now, she told again of those same idyllic times of her youth, of the house on Hyde Park, but this time I heard of the uncle who had killed himself, the bitter fights, her father’s depression and the look on his face when he came back from the electric shock treatments. I could tell she was exhausted. Her breath was labored and she was coughing. Yet she was exhilarated as well. She had a glow to her, a lightness, that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. I thought it was time to finish and let
as well, for each time I thought of him, another of his stories would come back to me. Those stories seemed to weave into my own, a tale whose twists, I believed, I finally understood. Once again, I was wrong. In Liberia they have a saying: You cannot unsneeze a sneeze. Similarly you cannot stop a story from unfolding, once it begins. Storytellers talk about the “rule of three” that runs through stories—three bears, three sons, three wishes, and so on. So I suppose it was destined that I should
chapter of the book. I have tried to say something about their origin, when known, as well as how I first came to learn them. The Beggar King (pages 1–10 and 213–16) Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin, this tale has appeared in many variations over the years. The legend of the magical stonecutting powers of the worm known as the Shamir seems to have grown out of the biblical restriction against using metal to build the holy arc of the covenant. This tale echoes others
well-known literary version of the tale, with the story told from Death’s perspective. I knew the story before Lenny told it to me, having first heard it in 1989 from Dr. August Zemo, headmaster of the Riverside School in Thalwil, Switzerland, where I served briefly as a storyteller-in-residence. The Wisdom of Chelm (page 127) These are but a few of the many tales about the mythical Jewish town of fools. There is, in fact, an actual city of Chelm in modern-day Poland, forty miles to the
SCHLESSINGER “[The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness] invites readers to see their own lives as stories, overflowing with meaning and never predictable. One of the book’s tacit ironies is that after losing his voice, ben Izzy told a tale that might be heard by his widest audience yet; they would be wise to pick up the book and listen.” —San Francisco Chronicle “Izzy’s considerable verbal storytelling skills translated well onto the page. His narrative ability and unusual personal story