By Deb Silverthorn
Simon Sargon, of blessed memory, will long be remembered with heart and homage to his music and all he brought to the Dallas community and beyond. Sargon, who served as Temple Emanu-El’s music director from 1974 to 2001, will be paid tribute beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, April 21, at Temple Emanu-El’s Stern Chapel and online. Sargon’s “Homage to Hafiz” will open the Service of Appreciation with the Shabbat evening service featuring liturgical music composed by him.
“Simon’s enduring impact on our congregation is inestimable. His creative gifts of heart and mind and his deep Jewish soul shaped our congregation’s sense of the holy. He was a major creative figure in American Jewish music, but just as much, a friend and teacher to all of us. Simon nurtured a culture of love, devotion and artistic promise within our Temple choir,” said Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi David Stern.
Sargon passed away Dec. 25 at the age of 84. He was born in Bombay, India — the son of Benjamin and Esther Cottin Sargon, of blessed memory, and brother of Ivor (Lucy) Sargon and Wendy (David) Bar-Yakov. His family immigrated to the United States in 1939, when he was just a year old, aboard the last ship through the Suez Canal. They lived first in the Bronx, then Washington D.C. and, for most of Sargon’s childhood, in Winthrop, Massachusetts.
Sargon went to Winthrop High School, then Brandeis University with Hebrew language study at Boston Hebrew College and music at Longy School of Music before earning a master’s degree at The Juilliard School.
Sargon met his future wife, Bonnie Glasgow, a singer whom he called his pillar, rock and source of strength, while the two were in Aspen, Colorado on separate musical adventures. He accompanied her then, and for more than 60 years, living in New York and Jerusalem before Dallas. The couple are parents of Olivia Sargon-Glasgow (Michael Blayney) and grandparents to Juliana and Adam Blayney.
Rhea Wolfram, head of the search committee that resulted in Sargon’s hiring, arranged to meet him first at Chicago O’Hare airport. He was returning to Jerusalem from a program at Indiana University; she, to Dallas from a professional meeting.
She called Temple’s then-president Sam Bloom and reported her impression; Sargon came to Dallas, staying at the Wolframs’ home. Nearly 50 years later, she recalls Sargon sitting in her garden, writing music.
“Simon was a mensch, a sweet person and when he spoke to you, you got his full attention. He always cared, was very sensitive and such a humanitarian,” said Wolfram.
“He and Bonnie were devoted and impacted our community greatly. I’ve always felt he was the most modest and talented man I’ve known. He brought national identity to our choir, to Temple and to our community — nationally and abroad. All that, and he was always a dear friend,” Wolfram added.
Sargon was a recipient of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society’s Ann Loeb Sikora Humanitarian Award. His oral history, a 2002 interview by Rosalind Benjet, with longtime Texas Jewish Post columnist Harriet Gross and choir member Ruth Andres, of blessed memory, in attendance, can be found in the DJHS archives.
“I was 6 years old when I first attended a piano recital and right away I wanted to play. My parents bought me a small piano and even as a young child I was writing melodies,” Sargon told Benjet. “When visiting New York family, I’d go with my Sephardic father to the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue and hear their wonderful male choir, with the bimah in the middle which was always impressive. Our own chazzan, in our Orthodox shul with no organ and no choir, had his own magnificent voice. During summers at New Hampshire’s Camp Yavneh, I was immersed in all things Israeli. I was inundated with all kinds of Jewish music and all of it impressed me.”
When speaking of his composing process, Sargon told Benjet that “writing is definitely spiritual to me; meditation and prayer help a great deal. Sometimes it comes, and other times I’ve searched and searched before it takes off. When it does,” he said, “it’s a mystery and I absolutely believe it comes from God.”
Sargon spoke of “many stimulating provocative programs, through Temple Emanu-El, that were enrichment for the whole community,” highlighting an American Bicentennial tribute and a program with Rabbi Levi Olan called “At Grandmother’s Knee,” which shared the influence of Yiddish on American popular culture.
For Temple Emanu-El’s Cantor Vicky Glikin, Sargon’s impact was made prior to her arrival here in 2016. While the two shared the bimah only once, it was Sargon’s “Psalm 8,” a song of praise which meditates upon the grandeur of the night sky and humans’ seeming insignificance by comparison, that Glikin chose to perform as part of a recital while in cantorial school.
“Like most everything Simon did, the setting for ‘Psalm 8’ was stunning. The music of his compositions always helps us to emotionally connect to the sacred word,” said Glikin.
“The sound of Temple has been defined by Simon’s compositions and that will reverberate in our worship spaces for generations. In Simon’s music, we have a chronicle of how Temple’s worship space sounded through the years. In works commissioned by Temple members, and through the dedications, we can imagine who sat in our seats and who sang in our choir, which has brought us so much life, beauty and soul. As we celebrate Temple’s 150th year, we are looking back and ahead, and we will forever be grateful for how Simon and his work have enriched our congregation and beyond,” she added.
Sargon remained close to many choir members long after he’d left Temple and since he and his wife moved to Maryland to be closer to family. Colleen Klein Oates, Temple’s choir assistant since 2021 and a choir member since 1992, first met Sargon while studying for an opera role.
“Simon helped me with the opera but then told me Temple’s soprano section leader was leaving and asked if I’d come in. I’d never been in a synagogue and certainly didn’t know any Hebrew. He had such a patient and calm demeanor, and he was an incredible teacher. A year later I sang ‘Kol Nidre’ and ‘Avinu Malkenu,’ and then 30 years went by and I’m still here,” said Oates, who sang on two of Sargon’s recordings and with him at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Carol Alkek, a Temple Emanu-El choir member for 52 years, beginning at age 14, loved Sargon dearly. Forever a gift is a piece he wrote for her mother, Irmgard Brooksaler, also a longtime choir member.
“We traveled the world with the choir, and I often got to room with Olivia [the Sargons’ daughter]. Our first big trip was to Israel and we sang Hebrew songs to the tune of the theme from ‘Dallas,’” said Alkek, recalling trips to England, Wales and Ireland, to Budapest, Prague and Vienna, to Mexico and to many U.S. cities. “Simon was a fabulous mensch; there is no other word for him. Every trip was a bonding experience, and we all became very close.”
Sargon, who in 2003 was declared an honorary member of the American Conference of Cantors, in recognition of “his outstanding contributions to Jewish music and Jewish life,” was commissioned to create works by many individuals and organizations, including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Holocaust Museum (now Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum), SMU’s Meadows Foundation, Voices of Change and The Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
Gregory Hustis, the former principal horn (1976-2012) and principal horn emeritus (2012-2014) of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, who worked with Sargon at SMU, says horn players around the world perform Sargon’s works. He holds Sargon’s “The Weeping Shofar” among his beloved compositions.
“He was a great friend who wrote a number of pieces for me . [It was] truly an honor. While much of what he wrote for me wasn’t ‘Jewish,’ or not meant to be, he never lost his roots — they were the very fabric of his being,” said Hustis.
“Simon was so smart with a great sense of humor. He was quiet but always kind and a most thoughtful soul,” Hustis added.
It is that thoughtful soul, and Sargon’s immense talent and legacy, that will bring an added dose of shalom to this Shabbat.