Joel ben Izzy

Joel ben Izzy, when he was “way too awkward to live.”

What’s the deal with the choliday of Chanukkah?

Though everyone’s cheard of it, few can understand it, even among Jews. Especially among Jews. We can’t even agree how to spell it, which is how you know it’s a Jewish holiday. In Dreidels on the Brain—written from when I was a 12-year old super-nerd magician—I spell it differently each time use it.

The ever-changing timing of Hanukkkkkah is also baffling. Three years ago it actually began before Thanksgiving! That’s only happened once and—due to quirks in the calendar—isn’t scheduled to happen again for 79,000 years. Hope you enjoyed it! This year Haanukah begins at sunset on December 24—Christmas Eve! That’s even more confusing, because whatever Kchaanukah is, one thing is clear—it is not the Jewish Christmas.

So, what is Haanukah all about? From the beginning, it’s been an uneasy melding of two stories about miracles. One was of the Maccabean revolution, with a simple moral: We kicked their butt because God was on our side. The problem was that the Maccabees went on to be terrible rulers, so bad that people decided not to include the story in any Jewish holy books. It’s true—to read about the Maccabees, you need a Christian Bible!

The other story tells how after the battle they went to rededicate the temple in Jerusalem, but only had a tiny amount of oil. Yet it lasted all eight nights—and that was the miracle.

I could go on about how confusing Qchanukah is, but I won’t, because here’s what’s important: I think I’ve figured it out—and that’s why I wrote Dreidels on the Brain.

It’s about what happened to me and my family during the eight nights of Chaaanukah, in December 1971, which is when the story takes place. It was a dark time in my life. My family was poor, my dad was sick, and I was way too awkward to live. So I made a bet with God, over a game of dreidel: All I wanted was one Kchanukkah miracle. 

Without giving away the story, I will say this: When it comes to dreidel—and miracles—God does not play fair. During that Chaanukah, my life fell apart. But, at the end of it all, I was given something I will always treasure.

I’ve always loved stories, which is why I’m a professional storyteller. And when I have a good one, I’ll turn right around and tell it. But this was different. I knew I needed to hold on to that story until the time was right.

That was 45 years ago. And now, at last, I’m ready to share the gift I was given that Haanukkah—a tale of how, no matter how dark things get, you can still somehow find light within the darkness.  

And, for me, that’s what Hanukkah—and Dreidels on the Brain—is all about. 


In 1983 storyteller Joel ben Izzy graduated from Stanford University and set off to travel the globe, gathering and telling stories. Since then, he has performed and led workshops in 35 countries. Over the years he has also produced six recorded collections of his stories, which have won awards from Parents’ Choice foundation, NAPPA, ALA and a Booklist Editor’s Choice Honor. Joel is also one of the nation’s most sought-after story consultants, supporting organizations and leaders working to make the world a better place, with clients in fields ranging from philanthropy to medicine to technology to entertainment. Joel’s first book was the highly acclaimed memoir The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, which has been published in 17 languages and is currently in development as both a film and a musical. He lives with his wife in Berkeley, California.

What’s the deal with the choliday of Chanukkah? Though everyone’s cheard of it, few can understand it, even among Jews. Especially among Jews. We can’t even agree how to spell it, which is how you know it’s a Jewish holiday. In Dreidels on the Brain—written from when I was a 12-year old super-nerd magician—I spell it differently each time use it.

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