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Phyllis Isaacson

b. 1938

Phyllis Wolfson Isaacson was born on May 17, 1938, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Leonard and Beth Wolfson. Her family emigrated from Russia and Poland in the 1880s to the large Jewish community of Chelsea, Massachusetts, near Boston. Phyllis began playing the piano at a young age. Her first big show was "Annie Get Your Gun." She learned to play the French horn and graduated in music education from Boston University in 1959. As music director at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, she conducted the Haydn Creation and Handel's Judas Maccabaeus. In 1969 Phyllis began her master's degree in conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music. Phyllis and her husband Lou 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. 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.

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Scope and Content Note

Phyllis traces her family history and shares stories from her childhood. 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, organized initially 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. Phyllis was the organist in a conservative synagogue near Revere right after high school. She talks about her experiences at Boston University, where she majored in music education. Phyllis traces her post-college musical career, meeting her husband on a blind date, and starting her family. When her children were in elementary school, she went back to earn her master's degree in conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music. At this time, not many women were in the field of conducting, and Phyllis explains how she met resistance from both men and even women who were currently in the field. When she was conducting at a summer music festival, the concertmaster came up to her and said, " You know, you are pretty good for a woman." Phyllis shares her experiences teaching music at several high schools and colleges and her time as director of the Concord Chorale for fifteen 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. Finally, Phyllis discusses her involvement with the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community and a local Havurah, a group of friends who meet monthly at different homes for conversation and celebrations about Jewish life.

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How to cite this page

Oral History of Phyllis Isaacson. Interviewed by Sandra Stillman Gartner. 24 January 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 1, 2024) <http://jwa.org/oralhistories/isaacson-phyllis>.

Oral History of Phyllis Isaacson by the Jewish Women's Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://jwa.org/contact/OralHistory.