Obituary: Michael Saville

Leeds’s inspirational community leader, chazan and choirmaster


For 40 years Michael Saville nurtured Leeds’s Street Lane Beth Hamidrash Hagadol shul choir, which he had launched at the age of 30.

In its heyday it attracted some 1,200 people to the main service and on a landmark Israel trip the choir supported pop star Yardena Arazi, singing to 40,000 people in Netanya square.

Under his leadership the choir performed on TV and sang at weddings and concerts more than 50 times a year, featuring some of the world’s greatest chazanim, Naftali Hershtik, Simon Hass and Benjamin Muller, among them.

For over 54 years Saville’s pastoral care and service to the Leeds shul and community impacted thousands, and he became known as the heartbeat of the city’s Jewish community.

Saville, who has died aged 83, also developed a popular biennial Eurovision-style Jerusalem Song contest, in which the best 12 songs were performed at a live show with prominent music judges casting nil to 12 points.

Born in Middlesbrough just before the outbreak of the Second World War, he was evacuated with his brother David to a farmhouse, where he refused to stay after being served rabbit. At the age of 18 he left Middlesbrough for Leeds University to study law.

It was there that he first became involved with the city’s Jewish community.
In 1959 he joined the BHH shul, as deputy cantor, or chazan sheni, and professional leyner, drawing on his childhood experience from Middlesbrough shul, when he and his brother David joined their father Moishe on the bimah during the High Holy Days, harmonising with him. He was also the first bar mitzvah boy there ever to leyn his whole sedra.

After a few years practising law and then accountancy, Saville worked as a financial director in textile and leisure companies, before taking up his final and most satisfying job at Oakdale Bakeries.

He became part of the management team that orchestrated a buy-out by an Icelandic bank at an inflated price, just before he retired in 2005.

Despite having had three types of cancer over 13 years, Michael Saville insisted he had not lost his faith in God. His identity stemmed from being a proud, engaged and committed Jewish community leader.

In his memoirs 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.”

Saville’s sporting passions were football — he supported Middlesbrough all his life — and cricket. But his greatest love was music.

From a young age his father played him an eclectic mix of opera, orchestral, chazanut and Yiddish songs on his radiogram, and he developed his great skill — playing piano by ear. Savile had a melodic tenor voice, but also two unique qualities.

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.

In November, 1958, at the age of 19, he met his future wife Jeanette Sugar, who shared his love of classical music. Paganini’s violin concertos and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade were their favourites. They married on December 22, 1963 and spent 59 happy years together.

He is survived by Jeanette, their children, Daniel, Debbie, Rafi and Gil, and grandchildren Jasmine, Benjy, Millie, Natan, Ruby, Violet, Eliora, Joel and Amelie.

Michael Saville: born July 16, 1939. Died March 20, 2023

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