The Japanese Irish Bar Mizvah (Flash Fiction)

It was 1974. I was eleven years old. And I have to tell you this story.
The place was Cleveland Heights, a leafy residential area of Cleveland, Ohio. The houses were old, all with creaky stairways inside.
It all started when Harmon said “I can’t play on Sunday because it’s my brother’s Bar Mizvah.” Harmon was a big boy, a year younger than us but a head taller. He had really strict parents that never let him do anything. He had to sneak out to play and sneak back before he got into trouble. He was always asking what time it was.
The house I lived in stood on a corner beyond which almost the entire street was inhabited by Orthodox Jews. It was really quiet on that street on Saturdays. Nobody came outside. We used to scream our heads off in front of Harmon’s house calling on him to come outside just to turn off his parents.
Jeff and his little brother Jimmy, my constant enemy/friends, lived on the other bend of the corner and were Irish-Americans. In fact, almost nobody was Jewish if you turned the corner the other way. Our house was a duplex and we were a Japanese family that lived in the Jewish side. A large family called the Denkins lived in the non-Jewish side. A block away lived Jeff and Jimmy.
It was not a surprise that Harmon could not play with us for any reason at all, but I did not know what a Bar Mizvah was. Nobody in my Japanese family had a clue. The Denkin girls, who talked over each other like ducks in a quacking contest, could not give me a coherent answer. Jimmy, of course, didn’t know because he never knew anything. Jeff was the only person who could articulate that it was some kind of a Jewish celebration. That much I could guess.
The obvious solution was to ask someone who lived on the street, but people who seemed to live on the front porch disappeared when you approached. I guess they must have behaved less like rare birds if you were Jewish yourself, but we were the only Asians on the street. I finally caught the snowy haired old man who lived across from us, a rare catch because you only saw him maybe twice a year.
“A Bar Mizvah,” he said, “is when we celebrate a boy becoming an adult when he turns thirteen years old.”
“How can you be an adult when you are only thirteen?”
“Well, you’re not, but we still celebrate it.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s tradition.”
So I sort of grasped that it was some kind of a special birthday party. And of course my evil twisted eleven-year-old brain started working out ways to torment Harmon and bend the silly rules that governed his life. I recruited Jeff and Jimmy to demand that we be invited to his brother’s birthday party. Totally alarmed, Harmon waved jazz-hands in front of our faces to stress what a very, very bad idea it was.
And so it was settled. We would crash the Bar Mizvah.
It was a time when kids played flashlight tag in the street after dark, got wet naked at the fire hydrant, and played stick-up with the traffic police without fear of being shot, arrested, kidnapped, killed, or sexually molested. And it was because we did so many naughty things with total impunity that we sometimes crossed the line in a truly offensive way.
You cannot crash a birthday party without a birthday present, so we went to the hobby store to look for one. We agreed that you couldn’t give a thirteen-year-old some sissy kid’s toy. That meant no Legos and no G.I. Joes. We had to go bigger. So we settled on a plastic model of a tank. We wanted to buy a Sherman tank but it was fifteen dollars, way over budget for us, so we settled for second coolest tank, which was a German Panzer tank with the Iron Cross prominently displayed on its side. Being boys, we didn’t see any need to spend an extra dollar gift wrapping it.
As a Russian once observed, happy families are all alike, but lousy parents are lousy in their own distinct ways. Jeff’s father either grounded him or left him free range on an utterly capricious schedule. My father beat me until I was reduced to a snivelling, convulsing pulp. Harmon’s father micro-managed him until he was regulated into a shoebox. We did not understand each other’s battles. That didn’t stop us from defying someone else’s father. Harmon and I would eventually build a volcano in Jeff’s basement and Jeff and Harmon would launch a rocket off my front lawn.
Times were different then. There were no coordinators, MCs, or professionals of any kind at the Bar Mizvah, just a hundred relatives bringing their own food to the back yard. An eight-track tape player provided the music. We marched straight into the festivities singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of our lungs and completely off tune. Harmon leaped in front of us like an electrocuted cat.
“What are you guys doing here? You can’t come in!”
“We just want to give your brother a present,” Jeff protested.
“You can’t do that! You gotta go home! You’ll get me in trouble!” His hoarse whisper was nearly a scream.
“We only brought your brother a present!”
That was when Harmon’s father intervened. He was the tallest adult I had ever seen.
“I’ll take that,” he said, taking away the box. “Now you boys go home.”
His face was a stone when he accepted the Nazi tank, his eyes like a large sad dog, a lifetime of injustice creased into his face.
“Happy Birthday!” said Jeff.
“Have a nice day!” I said.
And we made our way through men with beards down to their waists and big ladies who smelled of food, and out into the street and back to our homes.

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