Michael Saville

Michael Saville

16 July 1939
Middlesbrough, United Kingdom
20 March 2023
London, United Kingdom
Words by
Rafi Saville Son

Mum asked Dad a few days ago if having had three separate types of cancer over thirteen years, he had lost any of his faith in G-d. He responded, “Absolutely not”. Here’s an early warning, family and friends – this tribute to Dad is going to be full-on haimishe. I make no apologies. Dad’s identity stemmed from being a proud, practicing, engaged and committed Jewish community leader. Last year he wrote his memoirs and one line stood out for Mum when we discussed them in hospital during his final Shabbat. He wrote, “Without the Jewish religion, I consider my life would be empty and aimless, so I am very grateful to have been born into the Jewish faith”.

the heartbeat of the Leeds Jewish community

One more warning. You are going to hear a lot about Leeds. For fifty five years, from 1957 as a Leeds Uni student to 2012 as a retired accountant, and Zeida to nine grandchildren, Dad was the heartbeat of the Leeds Jewish community. Still today, if ever I meet anyone Jewish from Leeds and give my name , the answer shoots back with predictable gratitude, warmth, love and reverence, “Ooh, you’re Michael Saville’s son?”. Thank you so much to those that have come from Leeds today. New Bushey is a bit posh compared to Gildersome, isn’t it?

I was fortunate to have several discussions with Dad in the weeks before his death. Amongst other things, he was able to give me some instructions and guidance for the funeral and shiva. While this was extremely upsetting for both of us, I am so thankful to know what he wanted.

He said that if there were lots of rabbis, and you can see he is being honoured by so many today, I was to make sure no one spoke for too long as he much preferred Chazanut and singing to rabbis’ speeches. Thank you, Rabbi Wilkinson, for delivering on Dad’s wishes and for all your support in the last few days.

Dad was also very clear that he wanted Rabbi Jason Kleiman to give the main address. A bit of background here. Rabbi Jason was Dad’s star choir soloist from 1979 to 1983. BHH shul on Street Lane would fill to seven hundred or eight hundred people on a Shabbat morning to hear his angelic rendition of “V’hu yashmienu” before his voice broke age thirteen. However, to my Dad’s delight, Rabbi Jason returned to BHH fifteen years ago as the main Rabbi, and Dad loved the five years they worked together. Our family is so pleased you are here with us today.

the only family in Middlesbrough that kept Shabbat

While I want to respect Dad’s wish that speeches are not too long, I also want to make sure that I pay a tribute to Dad, worthy of the life he lived. When I said to Dad in hospital recently that he had lead such a full life, achieved so much and impacted so many thousands of lives, he started crying. He seemed completely overcome hearing this from me. Perhaps, we should have told him more often. I also think he was so busy helping people and just getting on with what he needed to do, he didn’t often take time to step back and reflect on his incredible achievements. So let’s start at the beginning…

Dad was born in Middlesbrough on 16 July 1939 just before WW2 broke out. He remembered the air sirens as a little boy and was evacuated with brother David to a farmhouse, where he refused to stay after being served rabbit, not the right food for a nice Jewish boy.

Apart from the Rabbi, the Savilles were the only family in Middlesbrough that kept Shabbat and Dad was one of the only Jewish kids in his school. His parents ran the kosher deli, which came in handy during times of war rationing. In November 2017, Dad was in his element when Auntie Ruth brought over twelve family members from Israel and they showed us where the deli was, the houses where they lived, the school they attended and the shul building, still standing replete with a large Magen David, many years after the community had left.

The family lived on Ayresome Park Road until 1950. This should be ringing bells for football fans, being the name of the old Middlesbrough football stadium. At 4:30pm on a Shabbat afternoon, brothers Michael and David would hang around waiting for the gates to open and then sneak in to watch the last ten minutes of the match. Dad continued to support Middlesbrough all his life, the highlight being a trip to Wembley with Gil for the glamorous Zenith Data Systems Cup final in 1990, losing to Chelsea and breaking a toe, run over by a car. In the past few weeks, he had been getting very excited by Boro’s chase for automatic promotion from the championship and even showed genuine rachmanus to Gil, Joel, Ruby and me as Leeds United looked to be sliding the other way.

watched and listened to tens of thousands of hours of cricket

More than football though, Dad’s main sporting passion has always been cricket. This started in the early 1950s with test matches played out with Uncle David between England and Australia in his back garden and continued into the 1980s in our Leeds cricket garden, where I used to force him to bowl to me for hours and hours after a hard day’s work, albeit often from his happy place, his sun lounger.

Dad loved nothing more than a day out at Headingly watching Yorkshire or England in the sunshine. He must have watched and listened to tens of thousands of hours of cricket. My Mum really loved that. One of my favourite things was when we used to get up together in the middle of the night to listen to Test Match Special from India or Australia. He was of course at Headingly in 1977 with Daniel to watch Sir Geoffrey Boycott score his hundredth century, but I am still upset that we only went together to the first day of the greatest test match of all time, the 1981 Headingly Test. We saw Australia bat all day, before being schlepped to Bournemouth for a holiday and missing the heroics of Botham and Willis over the next four days.

Even more than cricket, Dad’s greatest passion was music. As he explained on the 2017 trip to Middlesbrough, his love of music started in his tiny Ayresome Park Road dining room at a very young age, where his father, Moishe, would play him an eclectic mix of opera, orchestral, chazanut and Yiddish songs on his radiogram (Google it, kids! ). He also learned to play the piano for a few years in his youth but although he could read music and developed advanced musical theory, his great skill was to play piano by ear. He could hear any song and then just play it. A brilliant party trick.

he had leyned most sidrot more than fifty times

Dad’s exposure to music in shul also started at a very early age in Middlesbrough. He and Uncle David used to join their father on the bimah during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, harmonising with him. He was also the first Barmitzvah boy in Middlesbrough ever to leyn his whole sedra, which turned out to be the start of perhaps his greatest talent.

I am not just bigging up my Dad here because it’s his funeral.

But, he was literally the best leyner there ever was and there ever will be. He recently said that he reckoned he had leyned most sidrot more than fifty times. You could ask him on the spot to pick any portion of any sedra. He would sing it note-perfect and word-perfect off by heart. Not only that, like the truly great batsmen he could play in any conditions. Leeds was obviously his home ground, so that was easy, but he adapted his style whether he was in one of the many shuls in London, called on for a holiday minyan or in unfamiliar shuls in Israel. His absolute favourite was leyning the five megillot from the scroll he was given in the 1970s, which he continued to use for fifty years right upto Succot last year, when he read from it for the last time in the Adas shul.

At the age of eighteen, dad left Middlesbrough for Leeds University to study law and a new chapter in his life began. He was living away from home for the first time, meeting new people and already getting involved with the Leeds Jewish Community. In 1959, aged only nineteen, he joined the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol shul, known as BHH, as the Deputy Cantor, or Chazan Sheni, and professional leyner or Ba’al Koreh, drawing on all his childhood experience from Middlesbrough shul.

Dad had a melodic tenor voice, but he had two unique qualities that set him apart. The first was that his focus was always on the musical experience of the congregation rather than his own performance, obsessing about the right key and the right pace to ensure everyone could join in. Secondly, he was a highly emotional chazan, extremely connected to what he was singing. So, for example, he would always break down during Sh’ma Koleinu on Yom Kippur when singing “Al tashlicheinu l’et zikna” – “Please do not forsake me in my old age”, as he thought about his own father.

the Shul choir was his baby that he nurtured over forty years

It was in March 1970, aged thirty, that Dad started the thing he is probably most well-known for in Leeds, the Street Lane BHH shul choir. He had been in the Leeds Jewish Choral Society since 1965 and went on to become its musical director, but the Shul choir was his baby that he nurtured over forty years. The choir had a punishing schedule, singing over fifty times a year, including weddings and concerts. Over the years, he worked with some of the world’s greatest Chazzanim – such as Naftali Hershtik, Simon Hass and Benjamin Muller. The choir also performed a few times on television in the 1980s, which you can see on Youtube. The highlight of the choir’s history was a trip to Israel, which culminated in one of the most surreal nights. Somehow, we were booked as the support act for Israel’s biggest pop star, Yardena Arazi, where we sang to forty thousand people in Netanya square.

For me, the icing on the cake of his Leeds Jewish Community achievements came from an idea he had at a boring evening to mark Yom Yerushlayim in 1984. The idea was a Eurovision style contest that was called the Jerusalem Song contest. He asked people to send in original song entries, that he whittled down to the best twelve. These twelve songs were then performed at a live show with prominent musical judges casting nil points to twelve points for the best song. This became a biennial event and kept moving to larger and larger venues as it became more and more popular. This was Dad at his peak. Coming up with an idea, following it through and making it a massive success for the community.

It is impossible to describe the service he gave to BHH shul and the Leeds Community. The list of achievements, activities and responsibilities that he maintained over fifty four years is staggering. Earlier on, I mentioned his impact on thousands of lives. Everyone in the community knew Michael Saville, because he lead the choir at their barmitzvahs and weddings, he visited every one of their shiva houses, officiated at countless funerals, visited each of them when they or their family were sick or taught them to leyn or daven with the endless tapes he would make for them. And he could talk and loved talking to anyone, whatever their background, with no judgement.

I haven’t even said that he did all this in his spare time. He had a proper day job. I mentioned that he studied law at Leeds. Well he quickly realised that law was boring and he wanted something more inspiring, creative and edgy, so he qualified as an accountant. Dad was always brilliant at mental arithmetic, still completing the sudoku, puzzles and maths challenges until his very last days. He used to love testing us on our times tables and could easily multiply large numbers together. After a few years in practice, he worked as a financial director in textile and leisure companies, before moving to his final and most satisfying job as the FD of Oakdale Bakeries. Dad was extremely conscientious and while he always made sure he was home to have dinner with us, he would often work late into the night. His hard work paid off and he was part of the management team that orchestrated a buy-out by an Icelandic bank at an inflated price, just before he retired in 2005.

the most perfect marriage for fifty nine happy years,

So, I have spoken about Dad’s life in Leeds, but I haven’t even mentioned the most important part. In November 1958, sixty four years ago, he met Mum. Whatever I say now will not do justice to their incredible relationship. Their first date was a Leeds JSoc Social. Mum was in the Lower Sixth aged seventeen, Dad was nineteen. They went on more dates at the Moortown Corner Coffee Shop, Israeli Dancing events and JSoc functions and they used to pretend to swot for their exams at the Roundhay Park Open-Air swimming pool. When they were away from each other, they would write and telephone from telephone boxes (Google it kids) for hours. They listened to classical music, Paganini’s violin concertos and Rimsky Korsakov’s Sheherazade were their favourites. After a  five year courtship, they married on 22 December 1963 and they enjoyed the most perfect marriage for fifty nine happy years, completely dedicated to each other.

In Dad’s own words, he recently wrote the following:

“We have hardly had a cross word in nearly fifty nine years of marriage. Jeanette is realistic but I say she is pessimistic. I am optimistic but Jeanette says things will still go wrong. We raised our children to have a warm loving Jewish experience. We love them unconditionally, but we love each other more and more as the years go by”.

Mum often described Dad as being angishpart. If you look up this Yiddish word it means stubborn, which doesn’t capture what she means. What she really means is that if he wants to do something, no one or no thing can get in his way. This is especially true if he has made a commitment to helping somebody or achieving something he has set out to do.

For example, there was an urban myth in our house that on Wednesday 18 December 1972, Dad was at choir practice. Nothing remarkable there you might think. Wednesday was choir practice night after all. Except that on that particular Wednesday night, baby Debbie Saville happened to arrive into this world. In truth, choir practice might have been cancelled that night, but he would not have cancelled it easily. Because he hates to let anyone down and he never did. Angishpart.

Another example, Dad always had a fear of swimming and getting water in his eyes after being thrown into a cold pool by a teacher. However, at age sixty two, he decided he was going to overcome the fear and once he had decided to do something he went through with it. Up until his illness in December he was swimming three times a week. Angishpart.

Finally, this Purim just two weeks ago, Dad was suffering terribly. Following chemo, he was struggling to walk or lift himself up and was sleeping most of the day. He had arranged for his friend Max Bayer to pick him up and take him to his house to hear Megillat Esther, the story of Esther, which he had leyned for others over a hundred times. No one thought he should go and everyone told him not to go. Did he listen? Of course not. He dragged himself up with Daniel’s help and somehow managed to get there. Despite the enormous effort, he loved it and was so pleased to have gone. Angishpart.

Dad’s greatest pleasure has been spending time with his grandchildren

Daniel, Debbie, Gil and I are so incredibly lucky to have had the parents that we have. I don’t think any of us can remember Dad ever getting annoyed with us or shouting at us. He had endless patience and would make sure that despite his ridiculously full life, he made time for each of us. We each had our own special and unique close relationship with him. He never forced us on a particular path but would quietly, gently and wisely advise us what he thought we should do. It is a reflection on how much we each love Dad that we stopped our lives to look after him during his latest cruel illness.

In the last twenty one years, Dad’s greatest pleasure has been spending time with his grandchildren; in age order, Jasmine, Benjy, Millie, Natan, Ruby, Violet, Eliora, Joel and Amelie. Whenever any of them visited him in Edgware or called him from America, he would smile the biggest smile and delighted in counting each one of my girls in when they visited together. He loved chatting with each of the grandchildren and would always tell them how proud he was of every achievement, however minor. He was so happy to make the trip to Israel in apparently excellent health in November to see Benjy’s passing out ceremony from the Israeli army and we are so pleased that both Benjy and Natan flew in this morning to be with us.

So on to the final chapter. In 2012, Mum and Dad moved to Edgware. At the age of seventy three you might have thought he was ready to relax into retirement. But predictably, Dad could not stay still, filling his days with shiurim, leyning for four different Edgware shuls, visiting the gym three times a week and singing with five different choirs.

One of the reasons, Dad’s family and friends are so upset at his passing, despite him reaching his second barmitzvah age of eighty three, is that if it were not for the cancer, we felt he had so much more to do and many active years to live.

The one thing we can say is that he packed in so much joy in the three months since his diagnosis on 20 December. He spent a wonderful Shabbat with three of his Israeli nephews, Benny, Moshe and Aviezer, who came to stay in Edgware. Benny is here today with cousin Avi, Auntie Miriam and Roger, representing the Israeli family, and Zooming this back to them and, especially, Dad’s sister Auntie Ruth. Thanks so much for flying in early this morning..

home visits by the current crème de la crème of chazanim, Jonny Turgel and Avromi Freilich

He has also been visited at home and in hospital by some amazingly kind and generous people from Leeds and Edgware, including Rabbi Lieberman from the Adas, who played him old Chazanut records on his gramophone (Google it kids).

The absolute highlight of the last few months for Dad were the home visits by the current crème de la crème of chazanim, Jonny Turgel and Avromi Freilich. This was followed less than three weeks ago by Jonny returning with seven members of the Shabbaton choir. Dad conducted them through four pieces in his lounge. I had not seen him conduct a choir since June 2009 when he celebrated fifty years of service to BHH shul and brought together two Leeds choirs and thirty three choristers to produce a beautiful rich tapestry of sound and harmony.

After the choir visit, I couldn’t help typing into Youtube “Psalm 150 by the BHH Choir, Leeds” and watching him in full flow as a forty four year old, conducting a highly complex piece that he had arranged and performed for TV. That’s one of the many ways we will remember him.

But even more than all his different personas in the three communities he served – Chazan, Ba’al Koreh, Choirmaster, Community Leader and organiser, we his family and friends, and especially Mum, will mainly miss his kindness, his warmth, his devotion and his energy.

The final thing to say is that I couldn’t be prouder than when I meet people, give my name and they shoot straight back with, “Ooh, are you Michael Saville’s son?”