One day more than a hundred years ago, in a forest in another country, a rich man — a landowner on horseback — came upon my grandfather and asked that trembling 17-year-old boy "What do you want to do with your life?"
My grandfather replied "I want to go to America."
Then the rich man took a small leather pouch out of his pocket and gave my grandfather some coins. Apparently they were enough to get him to America.
That's how the story goes. Can it possibly be true? It seems improbable, but it was told to all the grandchildren exactly that way, many many times.
Before or after the Hanukkah latkes were eaten; at the seder table once the hidden matzoh, the Afikoman, was discovered; on the Fourth of July; on Grandpa's birthday — no occasion was complete without the telling of this story.
And each time, we children dutifully shouted out "Thank you, crazy rich Russian man."
Then my grandfather would laugh.
He'd laugh so hard he would begin to cough and sometimes my grandmother had to stand behind his chair and pat him on the back and say "Joe, Joe, calm yourself."
These were the only times I remember hearing my grandfather laugh.