Upon reading my post about surfing guru Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, one of my former students (now a film editor) got in touch with me to recommend that I watch Judd Ehrlich‘s 2008 documentary about Fred Lebow (né Fischel Lebowitz), founder of the New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC) and the New York City Marathon. He thought there was a strikingly similar theme coursing through Surfwise and Run For Your Life, and now having viewed both films, I would have to agree with him. Both are about Jewish men born in the earlier part of the 20th century possessing a single-minded purpose, who were uncompromising in their quests to realize their goals, and who sought a sense of wholeness (if not actual redemption) through an addiction to sport. The main difference between the two was that Lebow, although he surrounded himself with colleagues and disposable girlfriends, was in essence a lone wolf, while Paskowitz carried out his idiosyncratic experiments in “surfism” on his wife and many children.
It is not surprising that given their personal backgrounds, Lebow and Paskowitz each devoted himself to an individual sport, rather than a team one. Both men were escaping their pasts: Lebow literally so from the Nazis and then the Communists, and Paskowitz from a nervous breakdown caused by his unhappiness at leading the traditional life of a successful physician. The surfer spoke of his desire to become physically strong, a sort of super-Jew, so that no one will ever again be able to do what Hitler did. The runner, who directly suffered the Holocaust, didn’t talk about his similar outlook, and didn’t have to. You could see it in his bravado, guile and bigger-than-life persona with which he willingly steamrolled over others in pursuit of his objectives.
As I watched Run For Your Life, I was shocked to realize that not only had fifteen years passed since Lebow’s death from cancer, but that this was the first time anyone had made the effort to comprehensively and insightfully tell his story, as well as that of the focus of his life: The New York City Marathon. Aside from the too slick and overly used digital bells and whistles (as well as what I considered weird and uncalled for shots of a dead-ringer, stand-in actor for Lebow) employed by the filmmaker, I thought that Run For Your Life skillfully and thoroughly explored its subject. The New York City Marathon and the sport of road running are something we take for granted today, so it is a revelation to learn that back in the early 1970’s (when Lebow started applying his talents for salesmanship gained in the shmata business to promoting the sport he loved) that extremely few men were running long distances, and even fewer women ran at all.
Ehrlich conducted extensive research and interviews with many key figures in recent New York history who contend that Lebow not only brought the city’s marathon to international attention, but that he even, more significantly, brought New York back to a better place than where it had been during its years of economic and social decline. Entire neighborhoods of people coming out to cheer on the competitors signaled a pride of citizenship that had all but disappeared. Obviously, not all the credit for the clean up and revival of the city goes to Lebow, but it is clear that his indefatigable efforts on behalf of the NYRRC and the Marathon were integral to this urban transformation.
Run For Your Life, a film ostensibly about running, is actually a Jewish story at its core. Fischel Lebowitz tried to reinvent himself as Fred Lebow, but he never fully succeeded in doing so. His personal style, be it his sometimes tyrannical treatment of staff or incessant womanizing, stemmed from his (admitted) inability to be satisfied with having achieved his goals. There were always other goals to set and to reach. For Lebow, it was all about the chase. Surely, there is a psychological explanation for this, stemming from his many years (from the age of 14, and without his parents) of being on the run – and not for exercise – in Europe, before finally settling in America. Despite the new, assimilated persona he constructed for himself, the Romanian-born Lebow remained loyal to his Jewish identity and his Orthodox family (all of whom survived WWII and emigrated to the US and Israel). When he became sick and was dying, he asked that people start calling him Fischel Lebowitz again.
As a fifteen-year resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, living only a few blocks from the Marathon’s finish line in Central Park, the event was for me simply part of the rhythm of the city’s yearly cycle. My husband ran the marathon in 1988, the year before we met, and we have a picture of him crossing the finish line displayed on our mantle. He also was a card-carrying member of the NYRRC, participating in races and even volunteering to run as part of a Central Park security patrol. I recall that at least a couple of times my husband also served as a first aid volunteer along the Marathon route.
The Marathon date, almost always in early to mid-November, often falls on or close to my birthday. In 1994, I was more focused on the impending arrival of our first child (born exactly one week following my birthday) than on the thousands of runners who had descended upon the city. I remember actually being worried that I would be unable to get across the park to the hospital should I have gone into labor while the Marathon was happening. What I did not realize at the time, but I know now, is that as a new Jew was entering the world, another had left it, just prior to the 25th running of the Marathon he had birthed.
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.
A related note: Fred Lebow was born in Arad, Romania, in the region known as Transylvania, where Hungary, Romania and Serbia all converge. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Arad in the summer of 2007 with Centropa. The following is the first part (of three) of a piece produced by Edward Serotta for ABC’s Nightline in the late 1990’s. It is about the remaining Jews of Arad, and shows some of the central institutions of the Jewish community there, such as Aunt Rosie’s Kitchen and the Arad synagogue. I was privileged to eat in Aunt Rosie’s Kitchen (the food was good, but predictably too rich and heavy), and to visit the synagogue, which, once majestic, is in a sad, decrepit state. You can find the second and third parts of Serotta’s piece on YouTube.
Tags: ABC Nightline, Arad, Aunt Rosie's Kitchen, Centropa, Doc Paskowitz, Dorian Paskowitz, Edward Serotta, Fred Lebow, Holocaust, Judd Ehrlich, New York City Marathon, New York Road Runners Club, Romania, Romania Jews, Run For Your Life, Surfwise, Transylvania