Phyllis’ family emigrated from Russia and Poland in the 1880s to the large Jewish community of Chelsea, MA near Boston. Her parents were not very religious but honored the holidays by getting the family together for Chanukah and Passover. They were both active in the Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, originally organized to help the Italian, Jewish and Polish women immigrants working the NYC sweatshops.
Growing up in a home where her mother played violin and her father trumpet, Phyllis began to teach herself to play the piano. She started lessons at age six and by junior and senior high school she was the accompanist for soloists and the chorus. Her first big show was “Annie Get Your Gun.” Right after high school, Phyllis was the organist in a conservative synagogue near Revere. She learned to play French horn and graduated in music education from Boston University in 1959.
As music director at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA she conducted the Haydn Creation and Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. In 1969 Phyllis began her master’s degree in conducting at New England Conservatory of Music. At this time not many women were in the field of conducting and Phyllis met resistance from both men and even women who were currently in the field. When she conducting at a summer music festival, the concertmaster came up to her and said, “ You know, you are pretty good for a woman.”
Phyllis said, “He thought that was a supreme compliment…..so I didn’t kick him….I should have.”
She taught music at several high schools and colleges and was director of the Concord Chorale for 15 years. She took them on a concert tour in Israel and was offered a position as the director of the Israel Kibbutz choir for the following year. She accepted and her first job was to prepare the choir for the Benjamin Britten War Requiem to be performed with the Israel Philharmonic.
Phyllis met her husband Lou on a blind date when he was a student at MIT. They brought their two children up in Massachusetts, lived in Maryland for a while and were anxious to return to New England. In 1994 they bought an inn near Mt. Snow in southern Vermont and began a very successful jazz and classical concert series.
For over 20 years they belonged the Brattleboro area Jewish Community and became part of a Havurah, a group of friends who meet monthly at different homes for conversation and celebrations about Jewish life.
Phyllis has continued her active musical life and is currently teaching piano, playing jazz at senior centers and public venues and serving as a guest conductor.
This project was made possible in part by major grants from the Aviva Spring Foundation, Vermont Humanities Council, Damon and Marilee Buffum, Vermont Community Fund and many other individuals and organizations who have supported DAVAR through their donations.