Joel Ben Izzy. Photo: Ahri Golden
Joel ben Izzy. Photo: Ahri Golden

Joel ben Izzy has been regaling audiences around the globe for years with his delightful stories, many with a Jewish twist. A graduate of Stanford University and a long-time Berkeley resident, ben Izzy brings humor and pathos to the tales he spins. He has performed and led workshops in 35 countries (he is also a story consultant, helping companies and organizations better tell their own stories), and his six recorded story collections have garnered numerous awards.

Ben Izzy wrote his first book, The Beggar King and the Secret to Happiness, after he  unexpectedly lost his voice, threatening his career. Now he has written a fictionalized prequel of sorts geared to middle-school kids 10 and over. (Although it is a fun read for adults, too). Ben Izzy will be talking about Dreidels on the Brain all around the Bay Area in December (just in time for Hanukkah, which is spelled every which way in the book) with his first appearance Thursday at Books, Inc. in Berkeley at 7:00 p.m. Berkeleyside caught up with the author before his book tour began.

You have been a teller of stories for more than 30 years, mostly in oral form. You wrote one book for adults, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. Why did you decide to write a book for kids over 10?

For one thing, I love telling stories to kids that age, when there is so much at stake. I wanted a chance to go back to that time, when I was miserable and confused, wondering whether I should believe in magic or miracles or anything at all.

Dreidels on the Brain is also something of a prequel to my first book. The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness is a memoir, set in modern times, based on the true story of the journey that began when I awoke from surgery to discover I could no longer speak. That book included a couple forays into my childhood and the stories of my family — my mother’s smile, my father’s inventions and my grandmother’s insanity. Readers told me they wanted to hear more, the story behind the story.

Technically, Dreidels on the Brain is a novel, or perhaps a “fictionalized memoir.”  Because it’s set in 1971, when I was 12, it’s now considered “Historical fiction.” Oy! I was going for “Hysterical fiction,” but what can you do?

Dreidels on the Brain is set in 1971 in a suburb of Los Angeles. You grew up in southern California in that era. What parts of growing up did you want to wind into your novel? Did you face any of the dilemmas your 12-year old protagonist faces, such a being the only Jew in your school? What kinds of issues do pre-teen boys face that you wanted to examine? Did you ever regret that the U.S. made a big deal out of Christmas but Hannukah was a minor holiday?

Joel Ben Izzy when he was 12.
Joel Ben Izzy when he was 12. Photo: Courtesy the author

Yes, yes, and yes.  Much of what happens in Dreidels on the Brain is true. That 12-year-old protagonist — Joel —was pretty much me, straight up. I was, indeed, the nerdiest of nerds, long before anyone imagined that nerds could be cool — or successful. And I was the only Jew in my school (except for when my older brothers were there). And magic was my absolute and complete passion. I performed all over town — but what I really, really wanted was a miracle. Hence the story.

Much of what makes the book fiction has to do with the scrunching of time. It’s amazing how much of a miserable childhood you can squeeze into eight nights of Chaannukka.

As for issues faced by 12-year-old boys (and girls, and everyone on the spectrum), I spent most of my time too embarrassed to live. I mean, just look at the “Then” photo. Is it possible to die of sheer awkwardness?

I suppose that’s true for lots of kids that age, but in me, it all felt magnified, as though God on high were looking down and asking “What else can I do to screw with Joel and his family?”

I suppose that’s why I made the bet that starts the book, over a game of dreidel, me vs. God — “Just one lousy miracle, and I’ll believe….”  What I learned was that when it comes to dreidel — and miracles — God does not play fair.

Joel Ben Izzy

Why did you want to write a Hanukkah story? And spell Channuka so many different ways?

Kchaanukah is kind of a weird holiday and always has been.  People know that it comes at the same time of year as Christmas — which everyone agrees how to spell — and that it’s a big deal. But no-one can agree on what Haaanukkkkah is all about. It’s not even in Jewish holy books — to find the story, you have to look in a Christian bible! It’s built on two conflicting stories, welded together. One is about a revolution of zealots — “We kicked their butt because God was on our side!” — and the other is about the quiet beauty of light shining in the darkness. It’s a confusing mess, and all the more so this year, when it begins at sunset on December 24 — Christmas Eve or, as Jews would say Erev Christmas. Oy!

I was hoping to write something to help illuminate the holiday, so to speak, that would work for Jews and non-Jews, as well as older kids and adults. I kept thinking about one particular story from Kchaanuka 1971 that’s been spinning around inside my head for the past 45 years. It’s about an orange, set on a bus in Los Angeles. I’m not sure why it took so long to tell it but, several years ago, something told me that this is the time.

The strange thing is that while writing the book, I thought that era— December 1971 — might seem distant from modern readers. After all, it was a time filled with fear, when the world seemed to be coming apart, as the Vietnam War raged on endlessly, and we were stuck with this creepy, evil president. In that context, my story of finding light in the darkness made a lot of sense.

But I had no idea that when the book came out, for Chaanuka of 2016, we would be surrounded by such an abundance of growing darkness. Given the choice, I’d much rather the election had turned out differently and my book would be less relevant, but what can you do?

As for spelling Hanuuka a bunch of different ways, that was really fun — because no one can agree on how you spell it, which is how you know it’s a Jewish holiday.

But that reminds me — there’s a contest, for readers of Berkeleyside! If you read Dreidels on the Brain and count the number of different spellings, then email me the answer (, and include your address, and I’ll send the first five readers a prize, Lights and Laughter, my CD of Hanukkah stories.

Dreidels on the Brain has nine chapters, one for each candle lit for Hannukah and one for the shammes candle which lights all the others. Why did you choose this structure?

The intention was to have a book that people could read a chapter a night, from the beginning to the end of Kchannukah. I don’t know if that will work, though. People who have tried told me that they managed for the first couple days, then just sat down and read the whole thing.

What were some of the challenges you faced writing a book for this age group? What was fun about it?

As befits a Quanukah book, it was a challenge of dark and light. I’d send in portions to Lauri, my editor at Dial (Penguin) who would say “I’m afraid it’s too much suffering and misery for this poor kid, Joel!” And I’d say “That’s exactly how I felt at the time!”

We ended up toning my misery down a bit, which helped, but mostly bringing in a lots of humor, as well as jokes, Yiddish words, and magic, which were my coping mechanisms at the time. I suppose they still are, to some extent.

There was a lot fun writing the story, but the best part came toward the ending, when my wife, Taly, read the manuscript and got really involved in the rewriting and editing. She’s amazing! I had no idea what a brilliant editor she is. Every word, every phrase, every character’s psyche. For the home-stretch of the book, it turned into this intense collaboration – and into a much, much, much better book.

The book is very humorous, as are the stories you tell. Have you always been a joke teller? How do you find your material?

My material somehow finds me; jokes and stories seem to land on me and stick, like flies on fly paper. Alright, that’s a disgusting analogy. But, really, I’ve always been a joke teller, and that’s a big part of the book.

My dad — who is a major character in the book — used to say that humor is particularly effective in dealing with things that aren’t funny. I had a childhood overflowing with unfunny things. And while I don’t know if I believe what we say here in Berkeley: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” I do believe it’s never too late to have a meaningful childhood.

In light of current events, I might add that the thing about light is that you really notice it when it’s darkest. That’s why we tell stories for this time of year — at Kchanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas, and Solstice. And that’s why I wrote Dreidels on the Brain.

Joel ben Izzy will be speaking about Dreidels on the Brain all around the Bay Area in December. His Berkeley appearances include a reading Thursday at Books, Inc. on Shattuck Ave, in Berkeley at 7:00 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 11, at the Berkeley JCC Hanukkah Celebration from 3:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m,; Sunday, Dec. 18 from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at Chochmat HaLev; and Friday, Dec. 23 at a community Hanukah celebration at Freight & Salvage at 8:00 p.m. Ben Izzy will also appear at the Claremont Avenue store, Afikomen Judaica, on Dec. 25 from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

For more information about ben Izzy’s appearances in Albany, Corte Madera, and San Rafael, visit his Facebook page.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...