Tribute to Noami Leaf Halpern

Rabbi Jonathan’s tribute to Noami:

Noami Leaf Halpern, the oldest member of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, passed away peacefully on Saturday, March 26, at the age of 107. Noami was so dear to all of us who had the pleasure of knowing her. Noami possessed a sparkling personality and a great wit. Her enduring beauty and vitality were a wonder to behold. We never tired hearing about her incredibly long and eventful life.

We gathered to honor her. You can view the video replay HERE.

You can view the video slideshow, embedded below. Note that there were copyright issues on YouTube and so parts of the music soundtrack have been edited out. The unedited version can be found at the end of the Zoom replay link above.

Noami was born on July 3, 1914, in Jerusalem, the only child of Reuben and Sarah Leaf. Reuben and Sarah, story has it, were from Minsk and Pinsk (in today’s Belarus.) Reuben was a gifted artist and had joined the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, which had been founded in 1906. The Bezalel Academy is the oldest institution of higher learning in Israel. Noami was born so long ago that she was a subject of the Ottoman Empire! When World War I erupted, the family escaped so that Reuben would not be conscripted, and eventually made their way to New York. Noami was a dancer, a student and performer of early modern dance. During the 1930s she toured and performed her own choreography in Europe, the Middle East and North America. Up to the very end of her life, Noami was a performer, through and through.

Noami married Rabbi Peretz (Pete) Halpern, and became a rebbetzin in Marblehead, Massachusetts. But dance remained her focus. She continued to dance both solo and with her own dance troupe. Noami became one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. She created perhaps the first Jewish Liturgical Dance troupe, choreographing to the Friday evening prayers, and bringing dance into her husband’s synagogue services. (She later recreated those dances with us at the WJC.) 

In 1942, Pete and Noami acquired one of the original Byrdcliffe Arts Colony cottages in Woodstock as their summer home. After her husband’s death in 1988, Noami moved to her beloved cottage fulltime. That is when I met her. She was the most vibrant, mobile and energetic 75 year-old that I had ever met. Because my wife Ellen and I had both spent many years studying and practicing dance, we immediately became close to Noami. So close in fact that when our younger daughter was born in 2000 we named her Nomi in Noami’s honor.

In Woodstock Noami became involved in improvisational theater, in study groups, and most of all at the WJC. She made many dear friends. She led our Yiddish group, Chane’s Yiddish Vinkl, well past her 100th birthday. For years she spent every winter as a volunteer in Israel, an activity that gave her enormous satisfaction, and where she also met Maish Falk, her companion for many years. 

Noami was predeceased by her son David, but is survived by her daughter-in-law Donna Warner and her two grandsons, Daniel and Michael. But of course she is also survived by all of her friends, who adored her. Noami was a wonder, a walking history of the 20th century, and a joy to be with. I feel privileged and even awed to have known her. Noami’s memory is a blessing.