Berkeley storyteller spins Hanukkah tale in novel for kids

For as long as he can remember, Joel ben Izzy has been telling stories. The Berkeley resident has honed the art of storytelling for more than 30 years, developing a keen sense of timing, wit and drama into a career that has taken him around the globe, into schools and even into the corporate world.


Joel ben Izzy as a “nerdy 12-year-old magician”

Among his award-winning recordings are “Stories From Far Away” and “Lights & Laughter: Joel ben Izzy Spins Hanukkah Tales.” In his book “The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness,” which is part memoir, ben Izzy shares the story of his remarkable recovery from throat cancer that, for a time, took away his ability to speak.


Now, ben Izzy, 57, has written “Dreidels on the Brain,” his first novel for young adults 10 and up, an engaging story that twists and turns its way through the eight days of Hanukkah. Or make that “Chanyukah,” or “Kchkanukkah.” Readers will quickly catch on that ben Izzy has fun with inventive spellings of the holiday’s name.

In the opening pages of the novel, set in 1971 and largely based on ben Izzy’s own teenage years, readers meet Joel, a smart, endearing, but funny-looking 12-year-old who is a skilled magician and the only Jewish kid in his school in Temple City, California. On the first night of Hanukkah, Joel asks God for a small sign of a miracle — will his dreidel land four times on the Hebrew letter gimel, the winning spin in the gambling game played by kids during the holiday? The young teen is hoping the holiday brings brighter times.

But Hanukkah takes an unexpected downward spin when his family is invited to light a menorah at a school assembly and Joel fears being humiliated in front of the entire school. As he navigates his way through one seemingly insurmountable challenge after another, he discovers that magic and miracles may come in unexpected ways.

It’s an uplifting tale filled with humor, much of it Jewish-inflected, that weaves the story of Hanukkah and its rituals into the narrative.


Joel ben Izzy today

As a storyteller, ben Izzy loves sharing stories with young teens, whom he finds sincere in their search for truth. But writing for that age group was more challenging than he imagined. “It’s hard to get it to ring true, it’s such a different medium” from storytelling, he said.


He found the right voice by tapping into the disappointments of his own adolescence, balanced with a good dose of humor. He aimed for a book that works as a read-aloud.

As a teen, ben Izzy recalled himself as a “nerdy 12-year-old magician,” who, like the narrator in his novel, was the only Jewish kid in his school.

He would have welcomed a book like this one. “I might have felt a little less of a freak,” and laughter and humor go a long way, he added. A book such as his “would have given me some hope that miracles are, indeed possible — though the ones you get aren’t necessarily those you ask for.”

Like the father in the story, ben Izzy’s father suffered from chronic health problems and was an inventor. “He was always waiting for that big break that never came.” But his father used humor to ease his own pain and make others laugh, he said.

“The truth is, I love Hanukkah. For me, that miracle of the oil represents the light that is burning,” ben Izzy said. “Finding light in darkness is what we do as humans and as Jews. If some of that can connect with laughter and magic, so much the better.”

Joel ben Izzy will be at the Osher Marin JCC Festival of Lights, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11 at 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael; later that day he will hold a storytelling session for children at the JCC East Bay’s Hanukkah Art and Service Fair, 3 p.m.-5:30 p.m. at 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. He will also join a Hanukkah party at 3:45 p.m. Dec. 25 at Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley.

“Dreidels on the Brain” by Joel ben Izzy (320 pages, Dial Books)