A good life centenarian

Noami Leaf Halpern (photo by Dion Ogust)

Noami Leaf Halpern (photo by Dion Ogust)

Noami Leaf Halpern, whose birthday is July 3, comments on her arrival at the age of 100: “I’ve come to a place where there are no rules. Do you still cross your legs when you’re 100? I have to improvise.”

The Woodstock resident is in good health (although occasionally forgetful, she says), still walks unaided, and proclaims, “Life is good.” When she speaks of her 55-year career in dance, her extensive travels, and her marriage to Rabbi Peretz Halpern, she has the air of someone satisfied with her century of existence and looking forward to more of her current activities, which include acting in plays and teaching Yiddish.

Born in Jerusalem, Noami moved to New York City with her parents, both artists, in 1915. At 13, she began to study with the famed Mikhail Fokine, once the choreographer of the Ballets Russes. “We studied in the manner of the old Russian ballet,” she recalls. “When we heard his footsteps coming, we’d stand at attention. He’d walk in and raise his baton, and we’d all curtsy.”

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Dance companies came from India and Spain to show the dances of their countries, but Noami noticed that there were no presentations of Israeli dance. “So I thought I would do that,” she recalls. She began to choreograph stories from the Bible. Her first performance was at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. She appeared with the Ziegfeld Follies and came to Woodstock twice to dance at the elementary school. Touring North America and Europe, she portrayed Esther, Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, Rebekah, Isaiah, performing in schools, halls, and synagogues.

Conditions in Eastern Europe in the 1930s were often less than ideal. In one small Polish town, there was no school auditorium, so desks were pushed together and planks laid across them to create a stage. “Each board bounced a little differently from the others,” Noami says. “I was dancing as a flower vendor, with a basket on my head. I tripped on a board and did a somersault. So I did one on the other side, and it became part of the choreography.”

She describes a town with an open, empty square at its center: “One morning, you’d wake up and there would be a market, with little red boots hanging on a line, all sorts of clothing and food. The next day it would be gone, quite like magic.”

One winter day, she was preparing for a show in an unheated auditorium. She was in makeup, ready to don her costume, when she discovered that the costume trunk had slid off the top of the truck several miles back. Someone recalled hearing a loud noise as the truck passed a village. While the audience waited, huddled in their coats, someone walked through the woods to a barn. “They found two boys looking at my costumes and gold. We had the concert, finally.”

More disturbing was the pre-war mood in Warsaw. When Noami opened at the conservatory, all the doors were locked for protection. “Afterwards, the crowd was let out in ones and twos to not attract attention,” she remembers. “Poland is a beautiful country, but they were not hospitable to Jewish people. We found our posters torn off and thrown in the gutter.”

In 1939, as German refugees poured into Paris, where she was dancing, Noami cancelled a tour of Africa and returned to the States. She met and married Rabbi Halpern, who presided over a congregation on Long Island. In 1941, they made their first visit to Woodstock, later buying the house where Noami still lives.

Her husband encouraged her dance career, offering advice on dramatizing the Bible stories. She gathered a troupe of Yemeni men and women and performed with them at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1960, the group appeared on the Steve Allen Show. “He got a camel to participate,” she notes. “My chief dancer was a house painter in real life. The dancing they do is not performed — it’s part of daily life or holiday life. They dance for the end of the Sabbath day. It’s a kind of movement, not a dance with a beginning and end.” Sitting in a chair, she demonstrates a gesture, her hands and arms flowing through the air with consummate grace.

Noami also worked as a dance therapist and organized the first modern dance troupe in Boston, Festival Dance Company, which toured Canada and the U.S. Her husband died of a long illness after 47 years of marriage.

Although she no longer dances, she says that nowadays, “I’m able to live my life as I please. I can’t think of where I would be more comfortable than Woodstock. I have some good friends, and I like the synagogue.” She attends services and teaches Yiddish at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, which recently threw her a 100th birthday party. For years, she has been an actress and choreographer with the Comets of Woodstock, a lively group of elders who perform monologues and scenes from plays under the guidance of Edie LeFever, co-founder of Performing Arts of Woodstock. Noami also plays Scrabble, visits the library, and goes to concerts at the Maverick.

If you’re looking for a role model for long, robust living, you can’t do much better than Noami.

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