Thanks to Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, some 500,000 Americans will run in marathons this year. In my book Anything for a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon, the World’s Greatest Footrace (Syracuse University Press, 2004), I show how Lebow, a Holocaust survivor, changed the notion of this 26.2 mile race, which this year will be held on Sunday, Nov. 5, from a grueling, sweaty showcase for elite runners into a people’s competition.
Though the book was well received by the running community, I wanted to use it as a learning tool. As a political scientist at an urban community college, I asked some 150 students to analyze how this race director dealt with power – the main conceptual standard in my field – in transforming the marathon race. How did Lebow use power to wrest the keys of the city, to entice race sponsors, to manipulate the media, and to recruit top athletes?
My students – multiethnic and heavily foreign born – found Lebow’s story appealing. Born Fishl Lebowitz in 1932, he arrived in the United States after surviving the Holocaust as a boy and gravitated to New York’s garment industry where his entrepreneurial nature took him from an entry level position on the knitting machines to owner of his own knockoff design company.
He was introduced to running as a way of improving his tennis game. Although he was never good at it – he came in next to last in the first marathon he ran – running gave him a feeling he wanted the world to share.
In addition to creating the fun festival that the modern marathon has become, Lebow, whose twelfth yahrzeit will be observed on October 26 (he died of brain cancer on Oct. 9, 1994 – 4 Cheshvan, 5755) was always intensely aware of who and what he was: a Jew.
He felt a special connection with the part of his marathon’s route that took him and the runners through the chassidic area of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. He would shout in Yiddish to chassidic spectators, “lommen heren (let’s hear it)” and “die laufer darfen vasser (the runners need water)” as he led his pack of runners through their streets. As soon as he recognized the need for a Shacharit service at the marathon staging area, he set up a tent for a minyan.
Though none of my assignment questions dealt specifically with the race director’s Jewishness – and I doubt there were even five Jews enrolled in my classes – my students were quick to relate to the Jewish themes in Lebow’s life.
Some students picked up on Lebow’s Holocaust experience as background for his transformative populist version of the marathon. They noted that his experience with the Nazis resulted in his disdaining elite categories and other stratifications. Furthermore, the very fact that Lebow made it through the Holocaust showed adaptability and a skill in living by his wits. Improvising, or coming up with new shtick, was basic to Lebow’s marathon promotional schemes.
One woman attributed Lebow’s relentlessness to the emphasis put on the individual’s responsibility to strive (shteig) he heard both in his Orthodox home and cheder:
As is often the case, Fred Lebow’s childhood played an essential role in shaping the man he would become. As a Jew growing up in the Holocaust era, the idea of shteig – meaning to continually climb or strive – was deeply embedded in his psyche. It was taught, quite understandably, that one must persevere in order to validate his existence. This belief would play an enormous role in Fred’s life – from his early days in Europe, to his tenure in the garment center, and throughout the direction of his marathon. It would also serve as a representation to the “ordinary” people whose participation he sought in the race: a little shteig could go along way in running a marathon.
The most moving book report was written by my one blind student, William R, a middle-aged man who sat in front of the classroom accompanied by Victoria, his devoted black Labrador, and a note taker supplied by student services. He found Lebow’s struggles a metaphor for many obstacles he faced. The heroics behind Lebow’s vision of this challenge of self-discovery gave William new inspiration: