Bryna “Bunny” Tabasky was born in Malden, went to Malden public schools and graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music with degrees in Piano and Music Education. While at the conservatory, Bunny focused on collaboration with singers and instrumentalists and became a studio accompanist.
For most of her life, Bunny has worked as a musician, accompanist and coach. She was the organist at Malden’s Temple Tifereth Israel at the age of 10, and became its choir director when she was 12. She went on to study liturgy and organ with Evelyn Borofsky Roskin, a noted musician in Brookline, where she was exposed to many styles of synagogue music. When the temple’s cantor retired, she became the music director/cantorial soloist/resident composer for the congregation. After Temple Tifereth Israel consolidated with Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody, she continued as music director and later, as cantorial soloist, too. Bunny also served as music director for the Lynnfield Community Schools’ Broadway Musical Program for more than 15 years and continues to assist the Lynnfield High School music department with its Broadway Musical preparation. In addition, she is a life member of Hadassah.
Bunny has been married to her husband, Sam, for 52 years and they live in Middleton. The couple has three married children: Jonathan (married to Kerri Daniels); Rachel (married to Scott Zalvan) and Shari (married to Jason Levy). She has eight wonderful grandchildren: Jordan, Maya and Anna Tabasky; Jack, Ava and Nathan Zalvan; and Adam and Talya Levy.
You grew up in Malden. Can you tell us about your upbringing?
I was born into a very musical family. My father’s siblings were pianists, opera singers – very proficient musicians. We lived in a very modest two-family house; my paternal grandmother lived with us on the second floor, and my maternal grandmother lived downstairs. My Mom would put $2 in the pushkie every week to pay for my piano lessons. My bubbes spoke to me in Yiddish and I would answer in English. To this day, although I am not a fluent Yiddish speaker, I love to hear the language. My parents were Max and Ann Zeldis Toder. My mother was born in Tarascha, Ukraine. My father was born in Malden.
When my aunts and uncles came to visit, it was nonstop music: piano duets, operatic arias, show tunes, cantorial music, popular tunes. I pity our close neighbors as it went on long into the night! My father and my younger brother, Mark, of blessed memory, joined in the living-room musicals. I loved every minute and miss it to this day.
When did you first get involved in Judaism, and why?
My family was moderately observant, and always was involved in the Jewish community. We joined Temple Tifereth Israel after I attended a Shabbat service and heard the choir. I was so taken by it that I begged my parents to join. They always made sure that my brother and I had a Jewish education. Being Jewish was a very important part of our family.
When did you first become interested in music, and could you talk about your formal training?
I began piano lessons at age 5 with Myrtle Richardson, a lady who had studied with a student of Franz Liszt. She was a good teacher in technique and was very kind. She remained my teacher until I went to the New England Conservatory of Music. I also was the studio accompanist for Frank Terminello, a well-respected voice teacher of the bel canto method. I began to study voice with him, when I wasn’t playing for his other students. I continued in college and became interested in opera performance and lieder. I gave many recitals in the area.
You have been involved in temple activities most of your life in Malden and Peabody. Why is the temple so important to you?
Being connected to a temple has become part of my essence. It has provided me with a vehicle to incorporate and express the two most important parts of my life, other than my family: music and Judaism. My husband, also, has been extremely involved in Jewish community life. He has been president of Temple Tifereth Israel and is an officer now at Temple Tiferet Shalom. He was an executive officer of the Bureau of Jewish Education and has supported many other Jewish organizations. It has been very important to us to make sure that our children saw and understood our commitment and responsibility to the Jewish community. It is our hope that we have set an example for them, and they will pass this on to their children.
You were the organist for 40 years at Tifereth Israel in Malden. What do you love about playing the organ and performing Hebrew songs?
While I loved playing the organ for a very long time, the organ has fallen out of favor in the last decade. The styles of worship have changed, and we as temple musicians have had to adapt. These days, we mostly use piano/keyboard and guitar for accompaniment.
I choose liturgical pieces for their beauty and adherence to the modes and practices of Jewish music, keeping in mind the abilities of the listener as well as the performer. I am always conscious of having a mix of choral classics, chazzanut, Hasidic, Sephardic, ancient modes, and contemporary and folk music. I like to mix it up, always making sure that there are opportunities for the congregation to join and sing along. I believe in joyous, spirited and spiritual singing, not a rote performance of tunes that become perfunctory.
What’s your favorite part of the Shabbat service to play music, and why?
I love the whole of the liturgy, but I especially love the psalms at the Kabbalat Shabbat service. I enjoy researching new melodies for them and introducing these new tunes to the congregation alongside the old familiar ones. It’s always a balancing act of old and new. I also write my own music for the prayers and responses, some of which have become the standard tunes for our new congregational minhag.
You write and produce a new musical each year at the temple that’s based on a Purim spiel. What motivates you to do this, and can you tell us about some of your favorite productions?
In addition to the Purim spiels, I have written many shows to celebrate milestone anniversaries at the former Temple Tifereth Israel. They have provided a history of the temple in an entertaining way, utilizing satirical lyrics and fanciful story lines. For Purim, I developed an idea to write an interactive spiel for clergy, cast and congregation. The Purim story is told in many different ways, depending on the theme chosen. The congregation is part of the action and they are given a “Purim Siddur” which has their lines in the play and words to the songs. The congregation is incorporated into the songs and action, making for a hysterical evening of learning, music and poking fun at just about everything. I love seeing the adults and children interact in different ways, since sometimes the humor goes over the head of the kids, but they still enjoy the music and the jokes. I use music from all kinds of styles … rock, blues, country, opera and most of all … musical theater. All the lyrics are original and revolve around the Purim story. Some titles have been: “Shushan Game of Thrones,” “The Bachelor: a Rose is a Rose is a Rose,” “Occupy Shushan,” “Zumba Purim: A Day in the Life of Estera.”
Because of low membership, many temples have either merged or closed. What do you think the key is to a successful temple?
That is a huge question! I don’t have the answer. I think that congregations have to adapt to the changing, busy lives of their members, but we also have to try to draw them into the joys of living a Jewish life in a close and caring community. Providing interesting programs for adults and kids, lively services, and personal contact from the temple leadership and clergy, are certainly some of the helpful ways. People like to feel that they are wanted and valued.
Judaism is a huge part of your life. What have you gained from your volunteerism and faith?
I have gained a feeling of pride, belonging to a people with a long and extraordinary history. Our people’s bravery, and faith in humanity and justice, despite unspeakable horrors, inspires me to try to live up to these high ideals. I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying!