Running helped her build a new life
It’s race day, and it’s freezing. Connie doesn’t have gloves or a hat. She wears black yoga pants and a cotton sweatshirt. On her feet are a pair of bulky five-year-old white Nikes she bought at a Foot Locker. The crowd around her buzzes with strange talk of Garmins, and racing flats, and PRs, whatever those are.
At the gun, her friend says: “Just run. Just follow the people.”
It’s 2013, and Connie is 24. When her friend suggested a few weeks prior that she register for the Valentine’s Day 5K in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, she’d asked: “What’s a 5K?”
“It’s just a loop of the park,” he said.
How should she prepare, Connie wanted to know. “Just run on the treadmill,” he said. She figured, How hard could it be?
But now she’s following the people, a big, swarming crowd of people. And when they get to a hill, the people keep going and Connie stops. I can’t do it, she thinks.
Running outside, let alone among hundreds of other runners on a frigid Saturday morning, is new to Connie. For years, she had to hide her workouts from her husband and family. The hill before her is steep, but not nearly as steep as the one she has already climbed just to reach the starting line.
Sundays were school days when Connie was growing up. Only a few hours most Sundays, except for the first Sunday in November each year, when the New York City Marathon ran up Bedford Avenue, straight through the heart of South Williamsburg. That was a full day.
She would see only the marathon’s aftermath: an avenue strewn with paper cups, empty gel packets, and police barricades, the mysterious remnants of one of the largest road races in the world. Marathoners were crazy people, she was told. They were going to break their legs, or faint, or die the moment they crossed the finish line. But most important, they were not part of the community.
Connie Allen, née Schlesinger, was raised Satmar, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Hasidic Judaism that originated in Hungary in the early 20th century but really took root in post–World War II New York. After the Holocaust, thousands of Orthodox Jews fled Europe and established tightly knit communities throughout Brooklyn, including in South Williamsburg. Connie’s mother, Devorah, was born in Israel; her father, Lipa, in Brooklyn. His parents, Holocaust survivors from Hungary, had their first child on the boat from Europe to New York. They were also cousins.
For that first wave of Jewish émigrés, post-war Brooklyn represented a new start, but it was hardly a happy one. “Even in this land of safety and abundance, the pain of the Holocaust wasn’t very far from the surface,” writes Warren Kozak in his book The Rabbi of 84th Street. “One could hear it in discussions and see it on the faces of those who survived.” They seemed to be “stuck in a dark void,” a state of constant mourning. “Even the warm glow [of Shabbos candles] could not fill the horrible vacuum.”
South Williamsburg measures less than one square mile, but it’s grown into one of the largest Hasidic enclaves in the world: Some estimates suggest that it’s home to as many as 73,000 Hasidim of various sects. Most are Satmar, who reject modern life and maintain the customs and dress of their Hungarian ancestors. Insular and culturally conservative, the Satmar believe that through strict piety and by refusing to assimilate, they can guard against another attempt at annihilation.
This insularity is reinforced by geography, with sharp lines separating South Williamsburg from its neighbors: Williamsburg proper to the north, where boutiques, bars, and luxury condominiums line the East River waterfront; and Bedford-Stuyvesant to the south, a historically Black neighborhood defined by 19th-century brownstones, Baptist churches, and vacant lots turned into community gardens.
Connie knew nothing of either world as a child, nor of any other worlds beyond South Williamsburg, where she was born in 1988. She knew only what she caught glimpses of; her imagination did the rest. From her third-floor apartment on Lee Avenue and Heyward Street, she would sit at the window staring out—“especially on the weekends,” she says, “because there’d be less Jewish people out on the street.”
Whenever she saw a non-Hasidic person walk by, her eyes would be glued on them. “I’d just try to understand what life was out there, because the life I was living was so miserable and so depressing.”
It’s spring 2002, and Connie is 13. She’s small, with big brown eyes. Her silken hair falls straight against her back in a single tight braid. Her traditional black housedress extends almost to her ankles and covers her arms and neck; underneath she wears thick beige tights. Only her face and hands are exposed. Every article of her clothing has been handed down from her older cousins and sisters. She feels invisible.
Connie’s Satmar school is closed to girls for three weeks over spring break so they can help their mothers with Passover cleaning. They empty the cupboards, scour every surface that food has touched, and scrub the walls to rid their homes of any trace of bread products. In Connie’s home, they even clean the ceilings. The ritual commemorates the exodus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt, when, according to the Bible, they were liberated by Moses so abruptly that their bread had no time to rise and they were left with only unleavened bread for their journey across the desert. Today the weeklong holiday is observed without leavened grain products, a tradition that honors their exile and hardship.
For those three weeks, Connie’s typically silent apartment is full of commotion, and she sees an opportunity. She may not be able to change her dress or her hair, but she can change her body.
As her mother and sisters clean and scour and scrub, Connie slips down the narrow hall to her bedroom. She closes the door and lays towels on the creaky wood floor to muffle the sound. She begins: first jumping jacks, then high knees, then running in place as hard as she can, nearly passing out from the effort. She repeats the cycle for 20 minutes, and again the next day. And the day after that, until it’s time to go back to school.
“I wasn’t overweight, but I wanted to lose weight. Not because I wanted to lose weight, but because I wanted people to notice that I’d lost weight. And not even that I’d lost weight, necessarily, but notice me,” she says now.
Looking back, she realizes how unhealthy that thought process was for an adolescent girl. But 13-year-old Connie, who wasn’t even allowed to wear her hair down or do anything else to feel good about how she looked, just wanted to be seen. By her classmates, her teachers. Anyone. She wanted to be someone other than the girl in thick braids and dark clothes who even other Hasidic children thought was weird.
Lipa and Devorah had eight children, six girls and two boys. Connie was their fifth child, and their fourth daughter. The family was severe even by Satmar standards, which exacerbated her feeling of alienation among her peers. Lipa believed that food was for nourishment alone, not pleasure. He had never tasted chocolate or ice cream. Devorah spent most days reading her prayer book. She rarely showed affection.
On Fridays at sundown, Devorah would light Shabbos candles and Connie and her sisters would queue up in the living room “like an assembly line.” One by one, Devorah would kiss them on the forehead; in return, they would kiss her hand. It was a tradition that had been passed down over generations. Connie says she didn’t feel any particular affinity for Judaism or God. But she cherished those moments of closeness with her mother. She wanted more.
Lipa spent his days studying the Torah. Their income was limited to what Devorah earned babysitting for other families in the building. The family relied on food stamps to buy squished produce and stale bread at the market. The only meat they had was from chickens that Lipa usually slaughtered and cleaned himself, both to ensure that it was done according to kosher standards and because the butcher cut him a deal for doing the labor himself. Lipa got priority at meals; the kids were left with bare chicken wings and little bits of potato or rice. Green beans if they were lucky.
Connie looked forward to holidays, because on holidays, she and her sisters got to help Devorah make rugelach, a traditional Jewish pastry filled with chocolate or cinnamon. It was the only time they were allowed to have sugar. The family spoke only Yiddish and dressed in dark colors. The girls wore their hair in one or two braids; the boys in traditional payos, or “side curls.” Connie and her sisters were forbidden from talking to other girls who styled their hair with ponytails or bangs, or who wore colorful clothing. Her brothers were forbidden from talking to girls at all.
“He was extremely religious,” Connie says of her father. He believed men were holy; they existed to serve God. Women existed to have children and to serve their husbands. The sexes were to be kept separate. When Connie and her sisters turned 12, their father stopped looking at them or speaking to them directly. Whenever he chastised them, it was always through Devorah. Connie got chastised a lot. She was rebellious. She liked to listen to the radio; sometimes she brushed her teeth on Shabbos. Neither was allowed.
“I know a lot of people who grew up better than I did,” says Connie now. “They had more freedom of speaking their mind, and more love. I always feel like things would have been different if I’d had that love.” By 16, she decided she was done. Or rather, the decision was made for her. The sequence is a little murky; it comes in flashes now, her memory a kaleidoscope refracting the slivers of a life that, up to then, had only seemed of a piece. Connie sometimes has trouble putting them back together. She pauses often. Getting it right is important.
Of this she is certain: The summer after 11th grade, in 2005, Connie was told not to return to school. She had made a friend at Satmar sleepaway camp who’d acquired a reputation for hanging around with boys. The school disapproved. Connie was fine with this. She’d never felt like she fit in.
She got a job helping the teachers at another school, where she befriended the janitor. He was the first non-Jewish person Connie had ever known. And though nothing ever happened between them, Connie considered him her boyfriend. What else to call a man she talked to in private?
Devorah had reached her limit. She demanded that Connie talk to her uncle, “who supposedly knew about stuff.” Connie agreed on one condition: that her mother find her a match by the time she turned 17. It’s not uncommon for young ultra-Orthodox Jews to get married as a way to escape their parents’ homes, says Yael Reisman, the director of field and movement building at Footsteps, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that provides assistance to ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to transition out of the community. But getting married also further cements them in the community. “Once you’re married, it becomes much harder to leave,” she says. “And once you have children, it’s even harder.”
It was July and her birthday was in October. Connie figured she could make it that long. “I just wanted to get out,” she says.
Connie went to see her uncle three times. They met in a dimly lit room in his house. There was an old-fashioned dinette against one wall, a couch against another. He sat at the head of a long, wooden table, stroking his long, dark beard. She sat at the side, her eyes cast downward, her hands folded in her lap. He assumed she’d been sent to him because she was pregnant. “He talked about sex the whole time,” she says. “I didn’t even know what sex was. That was the first time I ever learned about it.”
Connie’s parents fulfilled their end of the bargain, too, and found her an eligible boy, another Satmar one year older than Connie. “My family thought I was already pregnant, and they didn’t want a scandal on their hands,” she says. The couple had a brief, 15-minute meeting and were married 12 weeks later.