Imagine sitting next to future composer, pianist, director and conductor Simon Sargon in Prozdor while the teacher is passing out papers and chanting verses from the Book of Psalms. Simon’s ears are finely attuned to the music, poetry and sacred texts that surrounded him. It is part of his personal formation that has been influenced by special people and institutions.
- His father, an observant Jew from Mumbai, India, and a descendent of Jews expelled from Spain, would pray every morning, and listening to the cadences of his father’s chanting would transport his son to “the banks of the Ganges River.”
- His family settled in Winthrop, Mass. Cantor H. Leon Massovetsky, spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, was a wonderful tenor. Simon had “the sound of his voice in his mind always and he still remembers his beautiful hasanish and that he was full of heart. It was soul stirring when he sang and it affected him deeply hearing him week after week.” Simon was invited to accompany Cantor Massovetsky.
- Simon graduated from Prozdor in 1954 and spent one year at Hebrew College. The faculty at Hebrew College was “mythic.” For example, his dean at Prozdor, Yitchak Zilberschlag, was a European-born Hebrew poet from Vienna. Hebrew poetry entered his psyche.
At Prozdor, he broadened his range of relationships from just a group of Winthrop kids he had grown up with in school. There were students from all over the Boston area, from the metropolis, and friends from Camp Yavneh. It was much more cosmopolitan, and it was stimulating and interesting to have that range of friends and relationships. He really enjoyed meeting them and they were top students; they had to be to be in both Prozdor and secular school. Prozdor classes were rigorous!
He really appreciated the unique atmosphere at Prozdor. “One could study the text of the Talmud in not such a totally religious setting, and it was liberating.” (It may be part of the evolution of Hebrew College’s pluralistic philosophy.)
- He complemented his Jewish immersion at Camp Yavneh, where there was a combination of intense Hebrew, Jewish studies, and involvement in Jewish and Israeli music. He even worked with a counselor to learn Italian!
- Simon accompanied the world-famous singer Jennie Tourel in many concerts, including a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1964. A legendary singer who sang at the Paris Opera and fled from Nazi Europe in 1940, she was a major influence on both his secular and Jewish music career. Given Simon’s fluency in Hebrew, she was influential in gaining a grant for him from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation to direct an opera program and an American-style vocal department at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem from 1971-1974.
Jewish Composer or Composer of Jewish-Themed Music
It is with this backdrop—and equipped with degrees from Brandeis and Juilliard—that Sargon combined the power of music with sacred Jewish texts, poetry, and liturgies of Shabbat and the High Holidays to give students, singers, and audiences a greater appreciation of being Jewish, Jewish prayer, and greater attachment to Jewish spirituality.
His music composition reflects this transformation. Sargon draws from poetry, such as the poetry of Hannah Sennesh, from prayer like Friday night services and the High Holiday liturgy, Jewish personalities like Saul, ancient texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Tanach. This year he was jointly commissioned by a German choir in Leipzig and an Israeli choir from Kibbutz Magan Mi-cha-el to compose a piece focused on Jerusalem. He drew passages from the Book of Micah. He is thrilled it will be premiered at St. Thomas Kirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach was Kapellmeister (music director) for 27 years!
“I think in everything I do I’m Jewish, even when I write a piece that is not specifically Jewish. That’s my soul, and that underlies and inspires all of my work,” says Sargon.
Milestones and Connections
2018 has seen two major concerts celebrating Simon’s 80th birthday. Members of the Temple Emanu-el Choir where he served for 27 years as director of music joined with musicians from Southern Methodist University, where he taught for a quarter of a century, presented a cross-section of his compositions. The other was at Temple Sinai in his adopted home of Washington, D.C., where Simon conducted 15 cantors from the region and a 150-person volunteer choir with a selection of his liturgical works. To honor his birthday, Transcontinental Music, the major music publishing company for Jewish music in the United States, will be bringing out a special volume of his music.
He still has connections at Hebrew College. His sister and brother-in-law, Wendy and David Bar Yakov, both graduated from Prozdor and made aliyah in 1969. His cousin Nancy Sargon-Zarsky is an ’08 cantorial graduate, and another relative through marriage, Josh Jacobson, head of Zamir Chorale of Boston, taught at the School of Jewish Music.
So how does Sargon pay it forward? Through his students, members of his choirs and audiences throughout the world. For example, Linda K. Wertheimer, an author and journalist (e.g. The Boston Globe), sang in the Temple Emanu-el chorus for about five years when Simon was director. She proudly reflects on the influence Simon had on her Jewish identity, even sharing that she became an adult bat mitzvah years later.
“I will forever treasure the time I sang in the Temple Emanu-El chorus under Simon, who became not only my teacher but a wonderful friend. Simon made me a better singer and a better Jew. I had been a religious school dropout in my youth and was largely disengaged from my faith when I joined the chorus. Thanks to Simon, I began to understand the prayers I was singing. I fell in love with the spiritual side of Judaism and wanted to know more. Simon’s teaching and his wonderful compositions brought so many prayers to life. Simon gave us so many gifts—his talent as a director and composer; his friendship; and his love and passion for every nuance of Judaism and for producing beautiful, spiritual music.”
Happy 80th birthday, Simon! The Hebrew College community hopes he will continue to bless the contemporary Jewish music landscape with his creativity for many years to come.
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