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Movie Review: Boy’s inspired mitzvah hits Cuban home run

pvjff_logo_highrezBy Michael Fox

For Mica Jarmel-Schneider, the plans to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba are exciting news – albeit a bit too late.

As his bar mitzvah approached several years ago, the athletic San Francisco teenager mulled various community-service projects before hitting on the idea of sending baseball gear to the island. Jarmel-Schneider had learned that bats, balls and gloves were scarce due to the embargo, and that even used equipment would be a major-league upgrade for Cuban kids his age.

havanaCurveHis altruistic campaign, and eye-opening odyssey to Cuba, is vividly depicted in “Havana Curveball,” an inspiring and unsentimental one-hour documentary suitable for all ages screening April 26 in the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival.

Recognizing the positive trend of bar and bat mitzvah celebrants looking beyond the party and gifts to causes deserving support, the husband-and-wife team of Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider originally envisioned a short film that would trigger conversations about social responsibility during the bar mitzvah process.

“We started with this notion that our son’s experience could be a vehicle for all kinds of kids having this conversation with themselves, their families and their communities about what their responsibility was in the world and how they might like to contribute,” Jarmel says.

The veteran filmmakers figured the short would take three months to produce. But as Mica’s project grew, so did the film. The complications of shipping anything to Cuba played a role, as did the family’s history.

Cuba had granted residency to Mica’s grandfather in 1941 when his family was fleeing the Nazis and couldn’t gain access to the U.S. The humanitarian act resonated with Mica and informed his project, even though the Schneiders didn’t stay in Cuba very long before relocating to America. In fact, Mica’s grandfather declined to travel to Cuba with the lad.

“My dad was deeply grateful that Mica was inspired by his life experience to go and perform this bit of service in Cuba,” Schneider says, “even though he no longer feels a connection to the country which saved his life.”

Mica was also influenced by another tenet of the Jewish experience, Schneider relates.

“His rabbi told him the story of tikkun olam, which is about putting a broken piece of the world back together, and how small or large acts can be part of that.”

Jarmel and Schneider’s previous doc, “Speaking in Tongues,” explored bilingualism in public schools. They are aware of the increasing augmentation of community service (performed outside of school) with service learning, in which service – and critical thinking about that service – is part of the curriculum.

“That was certainly what Mica experienced on the ground, that this was difficult, it was complicated, it was messy,” Schneider says. “Today he asks himself a different set of questions than he did four years earlier. More complicated questions. Not just ‘How do I change the world?’ but ‘Is it possible for me to change the world? What are the barriers in my way?’ Tikkun olam and the Jewish aspect was a big part of what was in the mix, but not the only part.”

Although Mica the college student may occasionally cringe at the onscreen portrayal of his younger self, he revels at “Havana Curveball” screenings at being treated by his peers as a bit of a rock star.

For her part, Jarmel sees “Havana Curveball” as a poignant bookend to the ending of her debut, “The Return of Sarah’s Daughters,” which explored traditional Jewish values in contemporary women.

“At the end of that film, I posed a question: ‘Now that I have a child of my own, what am I going to pass on?’ So here we fast-forward and this is what I passed on, this is what my son got from my passion for my Jewish tradition and exploration of that. It’s a reflection on how we brought Judaism to our household and nurtured what we see as core Jewish values in our children.”

The Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival will present “Havana Curveball,” on Sunday, April 26 at 12:30 p.m. at Smith College’s Weinstein Auditorium. For more information, visit PVJFF.org.

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