San Franciscan Mica Jamel-Schneider greets some baseball-loving Cuban peers in a still from "Havana Curveball."
San Franciscan Mica Jamel-Schneider greets some baseball-loving Cuban peers in a still from "Havana Curveball."

Have your own private film festival with Jewish Film Institute’s ‘Cinegogue Sessions’

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For baseball lovers, nothing could be sadder than their team being driven off the field at the very start of the season.

By a lousy virus, no less.

But on the day baseball season was supposed to start (had it not been suspended by a global pandemic), the San Francisco-based Jewish Film Institute aimed to lift some fans’ spirits with the launch of a mini online film festival around the theme of the greatest game.

“Take Me In to the Ball Game” is the name of the debut Cinegogue Sessions, Volume 1, which launched Friday with two feature-length films and one short. Future sessions will present packages around other themes, pointing audiences to films from San Francisco Jewish Film Festivals of years past.

“Right now we have at least 16 ideas for upcoming volumes,” said JFI program director Jay Rosenblatt, who is co-curating the series with programmer Joshua Moore. “And we can easily add to that.”

The shorts will always be free; the feature-length films will either be free or available for a modest fee depending on the streaming service the filmmakers have chosen; you’ll find out when you click on the film you want to watch.

“In this way, we will support the artists who provide such meaningful work for us year after year,” said Rosenblatt.

Volume 1 includes two full-length documentaries, “The Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” (2010) by Peter Miller, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, and “Havana Curveball” (2014) by San Francisco filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, about their son’s bar mitzvah year project to bring baseball equipment to Cuban kids. “Jews and Baseball” and the short are free; “Havana Curveball” rents for $3.99. It will also include vintage newsreel footage of Sandy Koufax in his World Series games and “an amazing performance of the song ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ by jazz singer Sophie Milman,” Rosenblatt said

Each Thursday, JFI will present a new package. Allowing viewers time to watch and digest the films over the weekend, the following Tuesday JFI will host film discussions, recorded Q&As with the directors and behind-the-scenes footage on its blog, The Cinegogue. The Tuesday discussions, just like each released volume, will remain permanently on the Cinegogue Sessions blog.

Volume 2’s theme is “Food, Glorious Food,” launching April 2. It will present “The Sturgeon Queens,” Julie Cohen’s 2013 paean to the family behind the New York deli Russ & Daughters, and “Famous Nathan,” the story behind the name associated with the kosher hot dog.

Launching April 9, Volume 3’s theme will be “Passover: Let My People Go.” It will feature the full-length documentary “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream” (2016) and the whimsical animated film from last summer’s festival, “Seder-Masochism,” described in the JFI catalog as “Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ meets the Old Testament.” Director Nina Paley will offer a fresh interview or commentary for the program, among other extras.

Some of the volumes will be geared toward the 18-to-35 demographic that JFI calls its “Next Wave” audience. Next Wave programmer Margherita Ghetti said she is working on themes of intimacy and separation that should resonate with young people experiencing the current pandemic.

“There’s a lot of young adults with cabin fever right now,” Moore said.

JFI’s streaming catalog of some 300 films, curated from the 40 years of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, is available to view at any time through JFI On Demand with links to the streaming services where the films can be seen. Some are pay per view, but many, especially older films, can be watched for free. And all JFI online shorts are free and available online.

“JFI takes no percentage; it’s more of a portal to the world of the best Jewish film,” Rosenblatt said.

So that film you missed at the SFJFF that one summer? You can see it whenever you want. Who needs to brave the summer fog outside the Castro Theatre? Or the risk of coronavirus?

It could not come at a better time.

“We’re mindful of the tone and content of our suggestions,” Rosenblatt said. “The first few sessions are definitely celebratory, with lighter material. I think people are craving that, at least for now.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.