Just after Yom Kippur, I sat down with acclaimed storyteller Joel ben Izzy to talk about his new memoir, "The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness" (Algonquin). At the heart of his riveting book is the story of how he lost his voice due to complications from throat surgery. Assuming his muteness to be permanent, ben Izzy sees his life’s work coming to an end, and visits his mentor, Lenny, a cantankerous recluse, to find some answers. Lenny, to ben Izzy’s astonishment, sees his affliction as a blessing.
"Could it be," Lenny asks him, "that you have been given the gift of a lifetime?"
As his sentence of silence continues, ben Izzy describes himself as being inside a story not of his own making, and without any clear moral or ending. But he comes to understand that wordlessness has allowed him to be a much better listener than before. When his mother is dying of cancer, he comes to her hospital room not full of stories or jokes or words or wisdom, but with a pen and paper. He gives her his gift of quiet, and she, for the first time, honestly tells the story of her life. Thus unburdened, she dies in peace.
Ben Izzy explains that the stories he tells (of his muteness, of his mother’s death, of his father’s disappointments and his grandmother’s madness) are painful, but are meant to restore.
"Life is meant to provoke, and stories are meant to heal," ben Izzy explained during the interview, his voice now clear and strong.
This idea, he continued, applies to community as well as to the individual. Our first Jewish story is of "being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, out of Paradise. What could be more painful that that? Yet the journey, the learning, the laws, are meant to heal us. We take the grain of sand that are life’s experiences, and we turn it into the pearls" of our tradition: stories from the Torah to the Baal Shem Tov.
Perhaps because in his book ben Izzy alternates his story with that of so many other traditional Jewish (and other) stories, I began to compare his voyage with that of Jonah.
Jonah, when called by God to perform his prophetic service, runs away from his responsibilities, sullenly hopes to die, and begrudges God his decision to save the wicked city of Nineveh even after the citizens repent. Life wounds Jonah on this journey and (unlike ben Izzy) he seems to come to no insight about what his life is supposed to teach him. Jonah is so fully inside his own story, a prisoner of his own expectation for the narrative of his life, that when his routine is interrupted he wishes to die rather than change.
Jonah is probably more like us than any other figure in the Bible: confused about religious responsibility, unsure of his ability to make a difference in the world, yet still wanting to do the right thing. An "everyman" among prophets, Jonah is a true mirror to our own weaknesses and fears. It is because he hides in terror and shame that we are able to understand him, and take the lesson of his life to heart.
In their new book of Torah commentary, "Five Cities of Refuge" (Schocken), playwright David Mamet and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner note that one reason the biblical stories are so powerful is that the characters are obsessively neurotic, as flawed and confused as we are today. They are not Gods or heroes, just people (sometimes gifted with prophecy or power) struggling to do what is right. We are forced to wrest the meaning from their actions, and this wresting and wrestling forces our engagement, compassion and judgment. The more extreme or disturbing their story, the greater the capacity for learning for them, and for us.
In the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Jacob’s leg is broken. But the fight makes him stronger, and gives him his identity and his new name: Israel. Ben Izzy explained that the provocation of a good story is "akin to breaking a bone in order to heal it." If life is the break, then stories (properly told) are the healing.