More than any marathon in the world, the New York City Mararthon is known for the diversity of peoples and cultures one encounters during the race. Each neighborhood has its own sounds, sights and smells for the runner to experience. Still, there is only one neighborhood which tugs on my soul and conscience.
Years ago, long before I became a runner, I saw a great picture in Sports Illustrated the week after the marathon. Five chassidic girls in matching dresses, stood, in age order, holding cups of water for passing runners. Without reading the caption, I knew these girls were from Williamsburg, where there is a large contingent of chassidim. Each year, the marathon passes through the heart of the neighborhood.
Chassidim seem to make other Jews uncomfortable, even those of us who are Orthodox. While most Jews try to cover upp signs of their Jewishness, or at the very least minimize them, Chassidim are openly and obviously Jewish. They dress differently and speak differently, and perhaps most significantly, they choose to remain separate, while most of the rest of us try to integrate into society around us, at least to some degree.
As I enetered Williamsburg last year, I was struck by a change in the atmosphere and energy level. While in every other neighborhood, the runners are embraced by the locals, in Williamsburg, they are largely ignored (or at least given the feeling that they are ignored). It is not that the locals are rude, far from it. Children stand out each year with drinks and candys for the runners. Still, it is clear that, given the choice, the chassidim would love to be able to go about their daily existence, without the inconvenience that the marathon presents.
For me as an Orthodox Jew, I experinced various emotions and thoughts as I ran through Williamsburg last year. While I have clearly chosen to live my life differently, I have much respect for their way of life. There are moments in my life when, overwhelmed by the secular nature of modern life, I wish I could withdraw to a more spiritual and insular community. Converesely, there are moments when I feel embarassed by chassidim and their distinctive ways. Why can't they just try and fit in? I looked around, feeling at once a sense of kinship with the locals, while at the same time, more than most most runners, feeling the sting of being ignored. I watched as other Jewish runners tried to greet the chassidim in Hebrew and Yiddish, but I continued to run in silence.
Although it might seem strange, I welcome the mixture of feelings and even the discomfort I feel as I run through Williamsburg. With more than half of the marathon still ahead of me, I know I will be embraced and welcomed in a way unique to New York. Still, it is this small chassidic enclave with its silence, that speaks to me.