By Harriet P. Gross
My hometown, Pittsburgh, is known for many things, among them — pancakes!
Pamela’s is the place (actually, several locations now); it received the official hechsher when President Obama invited Pamela herself to make her specialty — dinner-plate-size thin, lacy cakes topped with powdered sugar — at the White House.
When I visit, I always meet a cousin for Sunday morning breakfast at Pamela’s. My recent trip was no exception.
Donna was a bit later than usual, so while I waited and looked around at the usual huge crowd, I noticed a couple of elderly men talking over pancakes and coffee at a small table for two. Both were wearing U.S. service caps: one, World War II veteran; the other, Korean War vet.
One of the people I visited with during this recent trip was my last living uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, who is now 92 years old. He has an assortment of caps proudly proclaiming his service in the Army Air Corps — the designation prior to today’s U.S. Air Force.
Another relative I spent time with is a cousin in his late 70s who served in Korea.
So of course I had to walk over to these men and interrupt their breakfast and conversation. (I guess that’s me: no hesitation about approaching strangers. But I think I actually got that from my growing up in Pittsburgh, where people have no hesitancy about such things. Meddling? Maybe. But it’s always sincere.)
I asked the WWII vet in what branch he had served, and where. He said he’d been in the Signal Corps first, later in Infantry, and had seen action all across Europe.
I told him that my uncle was a bomber mechanic, first in Africa, then in Italy. He had even asked for permission, and received it, to fly on three missions over Germany and release the bombs himself; he did this in memory of his grandmother, Brucha Roth, who in the early days of Hitler’s regime had been taken out behind the barn of her family’s little farm on the Austria-Poland border and shot dead by the Nazis, just for being Jewish.
My uncle always wears one of his caps, and as the number of World War II veterans decreases, the volume of thank-yous for their service increases exponentially.
He’s a beneficiary of this phenomenon: every once in a while, he tells me, he’ll go to pay his check in a restaurant and find out it’s already been taken care of by another diner. No name. No fuss. Just a simple, special act of thanks. A tribute to a certain kind of heroism, because every one of those youngsters who served our country and the world and has survived to old age is today’s living hero.
So of course I decided that I’d buy Pamela’s pancakes for these two men. I figured I could just do it quietly, but when I went to the register and told the cashier that I’d like to pick up their breakfast tab, she went over to the vets’ table, literally picked up their check, and handed it directly to me right in front of them.
“Why are you doing this?” one of them asked. And I said, “Because you’ve done a lot for our country. So has my uncle, and he’s lived long enough to do a lot for me. This is sort of my way of ‘paying it forward.’”
Can you guess the response? “Are you Jewish?” was the question I got. When I said yes, both of them were happy to tell me that they are too.
And then I remembered what I’d learned from all my uncles who served, all of whom but one are gone now: that being Jewish in the Army, the Navy, the Air Corps, the Merchant Marine, at that time of overt American anti-Semitism wasn’t always a piece of cake — and certainly not a Pamela’s pancake!