This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.
Noemi Masliah, 70, is a fighter for those often pushed to the side by society.
An immigrant from Cuba, Masliah became an immigration lawyer committed to aiding those in need. Her parents met as teenagers fleeing the Nazis in the woods of France. After World War II, during which her father was a partisan fighter, they moved to Cuba, and then the U.S. Issues with Masliah and her sister’s visas forced the family to move again, to Peru, before they were finally able to settle in New York City.
Building on that extraordinary family history, Masliah has throughout her career provided pro bono representation to asylum seekers from around the world, and has established an immigration clinic at Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, where she is a member of the Board of Directors.
In addition to her work with immigrants, Masliah, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, has fought tirelessly for the rights of LGBTQ people. She is a past board member of Lambda Legal Defense, and co-founded two organizations committed to providing legal aid to LGBTQ immigrants. “She is dedicated to bringing opportunity and social justice to all,” wrote Vivian H. Shapiro, who nominated Masliah for “16 Over 61.”
Describe your ideal birthday celebration.
I have had my ideal birthday celebration. It was for my 60th. Hosted by two close friends at their stunning home, I was surrounded by 60 women. It was a sit-down dinner. The food was glorious, we danced and we laughed. Best of all, so much love filled that breezy summer air.
You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?
First, I hug my partner, Barbara Cohen, and then give a belly rub to Yofi, our little dog. I have breakfast with The New York Times and the Sunday crossword puzzle. We then go for a long walk which ends at a movie theatre or at a matinee. A wonderful dinner at my sister’s makes it the perfect day.
What makes you smile, no matter what?
A phone call from my niece or my nephew makes me smile regardless of the reason for the call.
When you get good news, who is the first person you tell, and why?
I immediately call my partner, to share the news and to calm me down.
What’s your earliest Jewish memory?
My earliest Jewish memory is going to Hebrew classes in Havana, Cuba. My parents thought that it was maybe a good idea for my sister and me to get some Jewish learning. “Maybe” is the operative word, because after three lessons and much protestation, they let us drop out. Now wiser, 62 years later, I have been taking reading Hebrew classes for the past year.
What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?
I cannot live without a sense of humor. Seeing the funny in life makes sadness bearable. Plus, sharing a joke is so Jewish.
How do you feel you’ve changed over the years? What ideas have been most meaningful to you as you’ve traveled through life?
From my work as an LGBTQ/H activist, primarily in the area of immigration law, I have come to recognize the importance of community. Nobody can change the world alone. Community has given me support, strength and ideas. The rewards have been plenty and, importantly, that work has blessed me with the treasure of many life-long friendships.
Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?
The concept of tikkun olam has become increasingly important to me as I age. This world needs a lot of repairing, and I hope to add a little mending to it in the time that I have here.
What does the idea of honoring and celebrating aging mean to you?
It means quite a bit. For far too long, Western societies have devalued and discarded the wrinkled and the white-haired. All of us have so much to learn from paying attention to their stories.