So far, Simon Sargon has been good at blending in. Since moving to Chevy Chase in 2016, the 79-year-old has kept things simple. He attends Temple Sinai in Washington, visits his daughter and grandchildren in the area and writes music.
But for those who didn’t know his work, Sunday will serve as Sargon’s coming out party. For his 80th birthday, 15 cantors, three instrumentalists and 175 volunteer singers will perform his compositions in the Temple Sinai sanctuary.
“It’s a chance to see an overview of what I’ve done during my work in the field of Jewish music,” Sargon says. “It’s just a broad cross-section of what was going on for 40 years as I was working in a temple and writing music.”
Those 40 years have been a world tour for Sargon, who’s enjoyed a career as a pianist, composer and music educator. Among other endeavors, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College and the Juilliard School in New York, chaired the Opera Department of the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem in the 1970s and served on the music faculty at Southern Methodist University in Dallas from 1984 to 2013. While there, he was also the music director at Temple Emanu-El, bringing the choir to prominence through tours and recordings.
The music on Sunday will span time and geography; from klezmer and Yiddish to compositions inspired by — and featuring — the poetry of Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.
“I never knew him but I always admired Primo Levi,” Sargon says. “[The poem] is a very intense piece about his life in Auschwitz and doing experiments in the camps, it’s kind of lashing out against the people who never did anything to stop the war and I identified with that.”
Sargon still thinks about the day in 1987 when he was visiting New York and heard that Levi had committed suicide. He wrote a five-song cycle using Levi’s work; two of them will be performed Sunday.
“He used the language of the Shema from Deuteronomy and turned it around,” Sargon says. “It was so striking to me that such a mild-mannered, scientific mind had this suppressed fury from what happened. I had done a lot of reading on the Holocaust, and Jewish people identify so much with those who perished, I was thinking about what it felt like to survive.”
Cross-cultural influence has been a part of Sargon’s life from childhood. He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in British-ruled India, but moved to Boston at an early age. He was raised in what he calls “an intensely Zionistic household” by his mother — a Russian Jew — and his father, a Sephardic Jew from India.
Most of his Jewish upbringing was in his mother’s Ashkenazi tradition; his family attended an Orthodox synagogue in the Boston area. But the Sephardim and their sound stayed with him through his father’s prayers. And when the family travelled to New York, they’d go to a Sephardic synagogue.
“Both of those traditions were alive in my house,” he says. “When I would wake up in the morning and my father was praying, it sounded like I was on the banks of the Ganges River.”
And his family’s connection to Israel reaches even farther back; Sargon’s grandfather was killed in 1938 during the Arab uprising in Palestine. On Sunday, though, he’ll be present in a song that bears his name.
Sargon had visited Temple Sinai before moving to the area for his grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah.
“I’ve used his compositions through the years,” says Laura Croen, the synagogue’s senior cantor. “It’s a wonderful honor to have him as a member of the congregation and to share with the community all of the richness of his compositions and his talents.”
For Sargon and his wife, Bonnie, the pull to Washington was simple.
“We were suffering from what you might call grandparental deprivation,” he says.
Mazel tov to you, Simon! I well remember the days at the Rubin Academy with great affection, with you at the piano, coaching me (and sometimes, Barry).
Best wishes to you and Bonnie.