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Jewish Journal

Once Upon a Mime

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 19, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Once upon a time, Joel ben Izzy worked as a mime -- until he injured his hip in a car crash.

Then he became a storyteller who lost his voice.

"If I could market irony, I'd be rich," said the wry, rueful performer.

Ben Izzy -- who eventually regained his speech -- recounts the journey in a moving new book, "The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness" (Algonquin, $22.95). Woven into the memoir are 15 multicultural folk tales, including the Talmudic legend of how King Solomon achieved wisdom after temporarily losing his empire.

If ben Izzy's tribulations sound like a not-so-funny cosmic joke, it's fitting that he began an interview with a story set during a Purim carnival at his Arcadia Conservative synagogue three decades ago. There, the budding performer, now 44, met "Professor Presto," the Jewish magician who would become his first magic teacher. Ben Izzy went on to become a mime in Paris until a Ford sedan gave him "a very quick physics lesson," and dislocated his hip in 1981, he said.

While recuperating, he read a newspaper article about the emerging storytelling movement spurred by artists such as Jackie Torrance; he knew he'd found his new calling. After earning a degree from Stanford in that craft, he traveled from Japan to Israel, collecting folk tales he performed live and on several acclaimed CDs.

He felt blessed until the medical checkup in 1997, where the doctor found the lump in his throat.

"After surgery, the good news was that the thyroid cancer was gone," he said. "The bad news: So was my voice and my livelihood."

While waiting to see if a second, experimental surgery could help, the desperate ben Izzy began "The Beggar King" to explore whether he could carve meaning from his misery. He was "shocked" when "King," his first book, earned rave reviews and potential movie deals: "I never thought that losing my voice would be my 'big break,'" he said. &'9;But as soon as ben Izzy mentioned his newfound success, he sheepishly added that he should perhaps spit to ward off bad luck. "An irony-free life would be nice," he said.

Ben Izzy performs Feb. 25, 7 p.m at Borders Books & Music, 1415 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; and Feb. 26, 7 p.m., at the Central Library downtown. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025.

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