‘Havana Curveball’: Baseball, Bar Mitzvahs, and the Cuban Embargo

June 10, 2014

Once upon a time there was a boy. An Austrian boy, who fled the Holocaust with his mother and sister in 1941 and ended up in Cuba. Two years went by before the family made it to the United States. He studied hard, worked hard, and made good. One could say he exemplified the American Dream.

Two generations later, there is another boy – his grandson. An American boy, who loves baseball. And when it came time for the boy to choose a service project for his bar mitzvah, his thoughts turned to Cuba, the country that sheltered his grandfather at his age, and whose people share his passion for baseball — though they may sometimes lack the equipment to play it.

“Havana Curveball,” a documentary by San Francisco filmmakers Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel, is the story of their son Mica’s quest to contribute baseball gear to his Cuban peers. Along the way he discovers the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, the impact of material need on individuals and communities, the quality of human generosity, and just how tough it can be to do good works. It will have its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on August 3.

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This is one of those lucky films that seized a ‘moment‘ in a young man’s development and found an eloquent expression of life’s transitions. Begun when Mica was 12 and preparing for his bar mitzvah at Or Shalom synagogue, it was first conceived as a family film. Then his parents saw its potential as a vehicle for some compelling themes both Cuban and American, Jewish and humanistic. With his permission, they began to document Mica’s project and the hurdles he faced, following his lead as much as possible while facilitating his eventual trip to Cuba. Their sensitivity as good documentarians who don’t want to interfere with a film’s revelation of truths overlapped with their wisdom as parents who know that you shouldn’t do everything for your children.

Over the years of film making, Mica’s insights deepened along with his voice. He had his bar mitzvah, played baseball, entered and completed high school. He glimpsed the complexities of the imperfect adult world and came to understand the imperative to do what you can to improve it, as expressed by the traditional Jewish value of tikkun olam.  It was a lesson that shaped his youthful ideals en route to fulfilling them.

Interviewed at his parents’ home office during his senior year at Lowell High School, he recalled a family trip to Central America when he was younger. They saw kids playing on the streets with sticks and stones and balls made of rolled up rags. So when it came time for him to choose a bar mitzvah service project, sending baseball gear to Latin America made sense to him.

There was also an underlying reason besides his love of the game: he wanted to “thank” Cuba for having sheltered his grandfather at a terrible time for Jews in Europe.

“I wanted the project to be something close to my heart,” Mica reflected. “Growing up I knew my grandfather had escaped the Holocaust and taken a boat to Cuba intending to go on to the US, but on the day they were supposed to leave Havana, Pearl Harbor happened. So the US closed its borders.

“I always thought there was something significant about this story. I felt I had something to learn about myself and my heritage and about Cuba, and I thought that this project would be a way to pay back a debt,” he said.

Ken Schneider, cofounder, with Marcia Jarmel, of Patchworks Films, had been to Cuba and was aware of what was involved for Americans to travel there. But they decided to allow their son to discover these realities on his own, and to be supportive as he worked them through. After all, the point of the bar mitzvah is to provide a framework for boys to cross the threshold into manhood. And there is no simple, guaranteed procedure by which that can be made to happen.

“I still don’t feel like a man,” Mica says, after all he’s seen and done.20 Reality Check copy

There’s a scene where Mica is exploring a Havana park with his father, a bag of baseball gear on his shoulder. A band of teenage Cubans spots them, and descends upon them with their limited English and friendly wiles. Since Mica has come with the intention of finding someone to give the gear to, he is open and vulnerable. The kids are no thieves. But meeting no resistance, they quickly appropriate the few mitts and balls Mica has on him. They take the stuff and disappear. Ken does not intervene. You see Mica looking confused and somewhat bereft. This was not how it was supposed to be.

But a few minutes later, Mica and his dad are having a catch. One of the younger boys from the group circles back, indicating that he’d like to join them. He does, and they have a three-way catch, like fathers and sons and brothers do. They seem to enjoy the pleasure of making contact across cultures through a common sport. The Cuban boy flinches a bit every time he catches the ball with his own wornout glove. Mica has one glove left. He offers it, and his new friend shyly accepts it with genuine joy.

“Thank you,” he says, smiling into Mica’s eyes. As the kid walks away, chucking a ball into what is likely the first new mitt he’s ever had, Mica’s face is glowing.

“This was more like what I wanted: to have some kind of connection with the person I was giving it to,” Mica recalls. “Not so they would see me as a savior or whatever, but just so that I could say, ‘I’m glad that I could give you something you care about, and that we could share this game.’

But before all of that could transpire, there was the fundraising, the acquiring of baseball gear, the research as to where to send it. He started a Facebook page and a “cause” page about the project so that people could follow his progress and learn how to make donations. The local sporting goods store Sports Basement was “really helpful,” Mica says, donating out-of-season baseball equipment and boxes in which to ship the bats. But most of the equipment was donated or bought with the money collected in fundraisers.

Laura_Paull-mica-and-gear“It was cool; it felt very grass roots and community-based,” he says. “I think people were touched that they’d be able to help others and to put this stuff they’d had lying in their basements to good use.”

That success was followed by his attempt to ship three boxes of gear to Cuba, which was when Mica first encountered U.S. State Department regulations against “aiding and abetting the enemy.”

“I’d assumed that even though there was an embargo, shipping items as a gift would be OK,” Mica explains. “It ended up not being so.”

Mica’s journey to fulfill his bar mitzvah service project against all odds provides the dramatic engine of the film, and many of its revelations.

He values having had his own experience of contemporary Cuba, though he admits that such a short visit  “raised more questions than it answered for me.”

Another scene in the film shows Mica and Ken’s visit with Estela, the woman who took charge of distributing Mica’s baseball gear to those who could best use it.

“One of the best moments for me,” Mica recalls, “was when she pulled out a map and showed me how my equipment had been spread out all over Cuba to teams that needed it. That was cool to see.”

When they returned, Mica talked to his grandfather about it. Herb Schneider had not been back to the island since he left it as a boy.

“I think he was flattered and glad that we had such an interest in Cuba and his connection with it. But it’s all way in his past,” Mica reflected.

Far more important than pleasing his grandpa was the growth in Mica’s awareness of the human toll of political differences between nations.

“I decided to do a project with Cuba, not knowing how horrible relations were between the US and Cuba and how hard my project would be,” he attests. “I was just a boy who had an idea. And the more I learned about how convoluted the situation was, I lost steam and enthusiasm.”

But he pushed on.

“People ask me what I learned. I think, most of all, it’s that doing the work is hard, and it takes a lot of energy and doesn’t always work out. But it feels really good when you finish it and can say that whatever small difference I made — I made a difference.”

For more information on the film, visit www.havanacurveball.info.

This story was originally written for 3200Stories.org.

June Noel

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