The immodest marathon returns to the enclave of piety

The immodest marathon returns to the enclave of piety

On Sunday, November 7, 2021, the marathon will return to NYC. And this means it will come to Williamsburg, where few passersby will cheer, and many will look away.

Once upon a time, the neighborhood was more comfortable with the marathon. Here is some old footage of Hasidim watching the runners go by. This is from the 1984 run. I love to see the fashions. The crowd is also a lot more mixed, with Hasidim standing side-by-side with non-Hasidim. This is so different from the way it is today.

Here is a bit from a 1989 NY Times pre-marathon special. They are showing the viewer the course, the many faiths of Brooklyn, and the Hasidic community. The host says:

And the Hasidic Jews are supporters of the marathon as well. When they first started lending their support, they handed out seltzer to the runners. But they found our that seltzer doesn’t sit too well for the marathon runner. So they switched to water.

I’m not exactly buying this bit about Hasidim being supportive of the marathon, but they seemed to try harder not to seem openly hostile. (This reminds me of when recently Hasidim gave water bottles to BLM protestors. These are largely PR savvy moves that seem to happen spontaneously, but which are eventually silenced by zealots.)

Fast forward to now, and I’ve given quite a few tours during marathon season. This poster goes up a week in advance.


It reads in part:

Dear Jews, be forewarned!

Not to go this coming Sunday on Bedford Avenue between 10:00 and 2:00. And of course not to stop and look! Parents should warn the children not to be in the area during these hours.

And indeed, it’s quite a sight. The runners are dressed in wild and colorful costumes, but no one is cheering. In 2019, I had a few energetic tourists, and they got to work yelling “keep trucking!” Mostly, the Hasidim navigate crossing the street with a lot of anxiety.

This is in front of the Satmar Grand Rabbi’s house, Zalmen Teitelbaum. There are no bystanders. (I wonder if in general, bystander culture has dwindled over the years. It seems this way from the old marathon footage.)


It gets a lot livelier at 1ish, when the girls leave school, but they don’t stand and watch.

By 2012, the Times report was very different from the one in 1989, when Hasidim were supposedly awaiting the runners with water:

My Times colleague Liz Robbins, who wrote the book on the marathon, A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York (Harper, 2008), calls this chapter “A Modest Mile.”

The marathon, Robbins writes, runs “counter to the Hasidic community’s strict interpretation of the commandment of tznuit, modesty.” So when the runners reach this stretch, “they are met with silence, interrupted only by the rustling of the fall leaves on the street or the muted sounds of small hands clapping. The runners see stares ­– quizzical, blank or bored — or they see people look away in modesty.”

Finally, this summary really captures how much the Hasidic community is a New York City story:

The sight of thousands of runners in shorts or skin-tights traipsing through such a traditional neighborhood, as men go about their regular Sunday business (Sabbath was Saturday) and women walk with their children and strollers, is unforgettable and so totally Brooklyn.

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