These have been heavy weeks, out there in the open world as well as in our own navel-gazing community. Despite the imminent arrival on Sunday of the fast of Tisha B’Av when both our Temples were destroyed, a little voice inside me tells me its time to lighten up. Besides, the relentless battle against age, flab or the poisons we have inflicted on our bodies continues regardless. The rabbis who introduced the laws of mourning for this time of the year didn’t for one minute think one might run for pleasure (or vanity), so they forgot to ban it, thank goodness.
So I’m going to share some reflections on jogging with you; in two very different cities and parks. And by way of introduction may I start with music. Now that was indeed banned as a sign of mourning during the Nine Days, but it was public performances, celebrations and parties. I doubt they meant those ubiquitous MP3s. Bach, Beatles, Beethoven, Belz, Chopin, Carlebach, Charles, Mahler, Modzitz, Mozart, Verdi, Vivaldi, Viznitz, randomly shuffle into each other as I jog along with my iPod. It’s a sign of our times, the easy access to all sorts of different sounds and experiences. Each person’s collection is a sort of biography of sounds that conjure up the past and all sorts of associations, some loving and some painful. You could admire such eclectic taste that combines the classics with pop with Hassidic. At least I have a Jewish devotional element in my collection.
You might say it’s a reflection of the dumbing down of modern culture that one has one’s favorite musical choices as a sort of muzak background as one exercises. There are Talmud Classes and Bible lessons and language courses and audio books, all available to save time as we commute or just relax. But one is bound to wonder what degree of study one is capable of either stuck in slow-moving traffic or sweating up a hill. Or, for that matter, how much of the music one really hears without concentrating on the score and the details of the composition. “Lollipops” Sir Thomas Beecham used to call these snippets of familiar tunes that keep recurring on quiz shows or Classics FM.
The fact is that, as any jogger knows, musical accompaniment, radio or homework coming through little earphone buds connected to a holder on one’s arm, or in a bumbag or pocket, is the new uniform of the exercising classes, the must have accessory, even for rabbis.
Exercise is, in its way, a sort of religion, with its daily worship routines, its special garments and heartbeat phylacteries, its myths and traditions and shared sense of community. Like religion there are all sorts of degrees of devotion and commitment and inconsistencies and hypocrisies and superstitions. And the religion varies according to country and location.
In London I jog around Greyhound Hill in Hendon. The air is clear and fresh and one can see for miles around, to Harrow on the Hill, beyond Mill Hill up the M1 and the main railtracks north. Early in the morning or late at night the feral foxes dash from cover to cover and hawks flutter above, while crows and magpies forage noisily for carrion. You’ll find solitary walkers of dogs and couples speaking some Eastern European language walking briskly to work or back home from the night shift. You will pass the occasional serious runner, grimly set in a humorless, clockwork motion that takes him or her away rapidly past you in pursuit of their time targets. In summer the eager tennis players start early and go on late into the dusk, and the drug dealers hang out in their usual spots as customers furtively enter the park, sidle up, transact and hastily depart. In summer the courting couples occupy the long grass. One passes them all on one’s solitary progress.
In Central Park, New York the experience is altogether different. The summers are hotter and steamier—-if you don’t want to encounter temperatures of 100 degrees, you’re best running before 6:00 in the morning. And the winters are far colder with the howling winds coming in off the Hudson—-then it’s least painful around midday. The runs are five miles longer. But if your timing is wrong there’ll be processions of cars speeding around spewing out noxious fumes, and even though there are lanes for joggers and cyclists and cars. Even under the best of conditions the air is far heavier and dirtier than Hendon’s.
There are surprising varieties of terrain, wild canyons towards the North and the ramble below Turtle Pond. To the south lie the more manicured areas from Strawberry Fields on 72nd Street, the boating lake and down towards the little ponds, the zoo, the winter skating rink, the rockeries and the shops of Fifth Avenue. And of course there are the special areas of the park, which you’ll want to avoid because they are where the drug dealers and the casual gays meet and do their business.
But the main difference is the people. On any morning or evening in New York you’ll encounter hundreds of joggers and runners and cyclists (from high speed multicolored pelaton teams of Tour De France wannabes to laboring stragglers on cycles for hire) of all ages, sexes, sizes and degrees of fitness or just bloody-mindedness. There are toned and attractive young athletes, huge fat women, wizened ancient men and all the shapes and ages and varieties in between. It’s a huge popular people caravan, and on Sundays it’s almost constantly head to tail. It’s never the solitary neurosis of lonely long distance runners that it is in London, where no one wants to know or care. It’s a New York social of heavy breathing, wordless communication, sympathy, sharing the bodily pain, partners in crime.
Yes, once again, it’s like religion, no pain no gain. To master anything, to achieve anything, is a struggle. But it always helps if you’ve got other crazies to join in with, to salute as you pass or commiserate with as you toil, or to share the relief at the end, united in a strange faith that can feel meaningless and pointless and unnecessarily painful most of the time.
It’s like going into a boring synagogue out of a sense of duty or because you’ve been invited. You don’t really want to be there. You know you wont understand a word of the service or enjoy anything the rabbi says. It’s going to be painful but it must be done. And then you notice others like you are suffering and you nod at an old acquaintance and you feel a little better and of course by the time you get to Kiddush at the end you’re quite enjoying it!
It’s all worth the effort in the long run, so long as you know when to stop!