‘Got Balz?’ A Family Film About Baseball, Bar Mitzvahs, and the Cuban Embargo

Laura Paull Articles, Featured, Jewish Life, Sheva Middot, Youth & Family — By on December 11, 2012 1:51 pm
This is the third in a series that seeks to illustrate how the Sheva Middot -- the JCCSF's seven measures -- play out in infinite variety through our own lives. 'Torah" (learning), "Tikkun Olam" (repair of the world) and "Re-ut" (friendship) would all seem to be exemplified by Mica's story.

Father and son on the Malecon.              Photo/Daniel Chile

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 lack the equipment to play it.“Got Balz,” the working title of a documentary film in progress by San Francisco film makers Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel, is the story of their son Mica’s quest to make a contribution of 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.

Now in the later stages of editing, previews indicate that 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 filmmaker-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 such things as 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 several years in which the filming and editing took place, Mica’s voice deepened; his body stretched long, his perceptions  and interests grew more serious. He became a bar mitzvah, entered high school, continued to play baseball.

And he glimpsed the complexities of the imperfect adult world. Concurrently, he 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.

Mica Jarmel-Schneider

Today, Mica Jarmel-Schneider is 17 and a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco. Interviewed at his parents’ home office on the late school day afternoon, he is courteous, intelligent, and patient, despite the fact that the making of this film has intercepted his young life for years now, and it’s not over yet. The project has required an attention span that is long for any American kid.

I’ve intercepted him, after three months of effort, between his classes and his many after school activities. These no longer include baseball, he tells me, though he loves  the game no less.

“I’ve decided to try other things,” he says. His Lowell “Class of 2014” sweatshirt — he is class treasurer — might explain something about that. He is focused on college. He’s acted in schoool plays. He has cut his luxurious, shiny hair, worn long in the film. He’s  lanky. Several times, in this awkward hour between school and dinner, his teenage stomach growls ravenously.

“Excuse me,” he says, every time it is audible. But he has no complaint. He knows dinner is coming, in contrast to many kids elsewhere in the world – even in the USA. When he was much younger, he went on a family trip to Central America, he recalls. 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, “I want to send baseball gear to Latin America” practically tumbled out of his mouth.

“We talked about it and worked with him on narrowing that idea down and focusing on what was really possible,” Mica’s father, Ken Schneider recalls. During these talks the family history of Schneider’s father in Cuba resurfaced. And finding a way to “thank” Cuba for having sheltered his grandfather at a terrible time for Jews in Europe, seemed a logical and meaningful goal to Mica: ‘Cubans love baseball. Cubans helped my grandpa. So I’ll help Cubans play baseball.’ That was about the extent of his plan at the time.

“I  wanted the project to be something close to my heart,” Mica now reflects in retrospect. “Growing up I knew my grandfather had escaped the Holocaust, and had 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, though I never really knew much about Cuba, and was curious. 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.  I wanted to do something that would thank the Cuban people in my own little way for helping my grandfather in those critical years.”

Ken Schneider, cofounder, with his wife Marcia Jarmel, of Patchworks Films, had been to Cuba before 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. In real, if not religious terms, there is no simple, nor guaranteed procedure by which that can be made to happen.

“I still don’t feel like a man,” Mica says, even after all that he’s seen and done. “It’s a process I’m still going through.” His stomach growls again.

There’s a scene in the film where Mica is exploring a Havana park with his father, a small bag of baseball gear on his shoulder. A band of teenaged Cubans spots them, and more or less descends upon them with their limited English and friendly wiles. Insofar as 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, scrabbling for dominance among themselves. They take the stuff and disappear. His father does not intervene. You see Mica looking confused — and somewhat bereft. This is clearly not how it was supposed to be. Too fast. No reward.

But just 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. It feels natural, and they all seem to enjoy it:  the pleasure of making contact across cultures through a common sport. Mica notices that the boy flinches a bit every time he catches the ball with his own wornout glove.

After a while they attempt conversation.The Cuban boy bravely offers up what English he’s acquired in school or in the street. Mica has one glove left. He offers it, and the Cuban boy shyly accepts it with what looks like genuine joy. Like it’s beyond what he could have ever hoped for. Like it’s the first time he’s ever come into possession of a new baseball mitt.

“Thank you,” he says, smiling into Mica’s eyes. “Thank you.”

As the kid walks away, chucking a ball into his new mitt, Mica’s face is glowing.

“It was really nice — like in a movie,” Mica now recalls. “This was more like what I wanted: to have some kind of connection with the person I was giving it to. 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.’ I didn’t get that with the first bunch of kids, but the second interaction that was more personal and more of what I was looking for.”

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; Schneider and Jarmel also created a web page for the film itself.

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.

Some of the gear that Mica collected for donation. Photo/K.Schneider

“It was cool; it felt very grass roots and community-based,” he says. “The equipment I was giving away was either formerly mine or had belonged to family and friends, and as they passed the items on to me there were stories that came with them – like ‘My aunt gave this mitt to me” or “my late-husband loved to play with this mitt and I hope it goes to someone who will love it.’
 I think people were touched that they’d be able to help others and be able to put this stuff they’d  had lying in their basement for years to good use.”

That success was followed by the attempt to ship three boxes of gear to Cuba via UPS or US mail — Mica’s first encounter with U.S. State Department regulations against “aiding and abetting the enemy.”

“I assumed that even though an embargo existed, shippping items as a gift would be OK,” Mica explains. “It ended up not being so.”

So how did the baseball gear get to Cuba? I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but let’s just say that 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.” After what it took to get there as an American, Mica says he was “struck” by what seemed like very relaxed security at Cuba’s borders.

“They’ve seen a lot of cinematographers coming and going, and it seemed like there was a lot of trust in general; good will and a sense of community, at least with the people we encountered,” Mica says. “People there weren’t overjoyed with their lives, necessarily; they didn’t have luxuries, but they had what they needed and they understood that that was enough.

“They had their families, and were bringing in enough to make ends meet. It seemed like the country had very strong family and community values — something I’d like to see more of in America.”

Mica, Ken Schneider, and a small Cuban film crew deliver some gear to a non-profit community center. Photo/Daniel Chile

Another scene in the film shows Mica and Ken’s visit with the woman who ultimately took charge of distributing Mica’s baseball gear to those who could best use it. Estela worked for Cuba’s Martin Luther King Junior Center, connected to a Baptist Church.

“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.”

Naturally, his visit included a trip to the Havana stadium, the Latinoamericano, and that experience is also documented in the film. He described the game he watched as “very spirited, like a football at your home stadium in the US. There was a whole section with drummers and dancers;it was a lot of fun. The stadium had only about 10,000 seats – just benches, really – and there was no food or drinks to buy. It’s a game, not an event to down five dollar beers.”

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

“He was charmed and even proud that we went ” Mica reflected. “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.”

Far more important a result than pleasing his grandpa, as it turned out, 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 I was really excited to do it. And the more I learned about how convoluted the situation was, I lost steam and enthusiasm. But in the end I pushed on.”

And push on, he did.

“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.”

There’s a moment in the film where  Mica says ingenuously, “I thought that you could be barmitzvahed and automatically become a mensch…”

Instead, he learned that the metamorphosis is hard-won. Completing the project, he said, helped him understand “that it’s not just about preparing for one big day; it’s about learning social responsibility and what it means to try hard to do something — to do right. And I think that had I not done the project  I would have had a very different experience at my bar mitzvah. But because the project ended up being such a big affair and I had to really want to do it to be able to finish, it ended up being as big a part of the change in who I am, as the bar mitzvah was.”

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  1. Julie Trachtenberg says:

    Very strong and important story about how hard it is to make a difference, even with the best of intentions. Bravo to Mica. JT

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