Memories of Michael

December 10, 2010 by J-Wire Staff
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Michael Deutsch, former cantor of Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue passed away this week. J-Wire publishes eulogies written by those close to Cantor Deutsch whose warmth and presence extended well beyond his own congregation…and touched the entire community.from Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins:

At the passing of King Saul and the king’s son Jonathan, David intoned this dirge, “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights; How the mighty have fallen….”  “How the mighty have fallen” is a phrase that I have had in my mind as I watched our beloved and cherished Michael Deutsch slowly waste away over these last few years in his bed at the Montefiore, where weekly visits from family and a few good friends held him in life.  His strength had ebbed, his voice weakened, his body was shrinking, yet his striking good looks were still there even in his failing health.  “How the mighty have fallen”, and it was so cruel, so unfair, that a man of this incredible love and generosity should not have the dignity he deserved in his final years after giving tirelessly of himself until his 70s, irreplaceable at Emanuel Synagogue.

When I began work here in 1989, I understood how Michael, who had served at that time nearly 40 years at the then Temple Emanuel, was truly its heart and soul.  Over and over from then until now I have heard how Michael Deutsch taught me bar mitzvah, how Michael Deutsch was at my wedding, how Michael Deutsch was there when my loved one’s died – and this for generations of this congregation.  It was through his tireless efforts devoted to the individuals of this congregation that Rabbi Brasch, alav hashalom, had the ability to do his writing and ecumenical work and Rabbi Fox, whose words we have heard, the opportunity to create and establish Emanuel School.  It was with Cantor Deutsch’s love, strength and support that I was nurtured and nourished as the young first assistant rabbi to this congregation.  Similarly, he looked after and guided George Mordecai and Joseph Toltz.

There were years when I worked here that Cantor Deutsch officiated at nearly 100 funerals – physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting for anyone, especially someone in his 60s, beginning to farewell far too many friends.  And this he did without a word of complaint or sufferance, truly one of God’s devoted ones.

Meanwhile, I will always have images in my mind of Cantor Deutsch with all the children, and certainly I wanted to follow in his footsteps in the way he connected with them with open heart, and those big, warm hands.  There are generations of pictures with young children sitting on Michael’s lap, some of those children with whom Michael danced at their weddings, to merit the blessing of having their children – and even grandchildren – also know and love him.  There were Sunday mornings where Michael was there to teach songs to the children of the Hebrew and Religion School.  There were those magnificent afternoons with a swarm of rowdy boys in the boardroom with Michael as he patiently and painstakingly taught them their prayers and parasha in his methodical and musical way – the ones who were waiting for their one on one time placated by lollies and games.    There were the Thursday nights teaching to prospective converts.  And this not from just a man in his 30s and 40s, but 50s and 60s, and even into his 70s.  His strength and resilience was phenomenal.

Besides all this teaching, all this accompanying members of our synagogue and the Sydney Jewish Community through the cycles of life, Michael had a voice that  was the most powerful and passionate purveyor of prayer I have ever had the privilege of knowing.  I will always remember standing at the bimah with Cantor Deutsch by my side, his big paw of a hand squeezing mine with all his love, strength and emotion.  Standing besides Michael with his booming voice there were moments that my ear rang for minutes afterward, and I like to think of my tinnitus as a zekher l’tzadik, a memory of this righteous man.  We have decided to have a memorial service for Michael in March 2011, where we will recount further stories and play recordings of his music to feel the power of his presence through his voice.

For those of us privileged to hear Michael, we know that there were certain aspects of the Shabbat service – Hashkivenu in the evening or Retzey in the morning – that were pure Michael’s davenning his heart.  And then came the festivals and the Yamim Noraim.  A prayer was not just words and music combined – a prayer from Cantor Michael Deutsch was the plea from the depths of his soul.  “Avinu Malkeinu, chamol aleinu v’al olaleinu v’tapeinu” – our father, our king have mercy upon us and upon our children.  I heard the loss of his sister and little cousins each time Michael sang that.  And when he sang El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the martyrs, one knew that Michael had lost hundreds of members of his family, Michael had seen and experienced things no human should have.

Yet despite what he suffered, he embraced life and loved humanity.  Even after his retirement, his presence continued to be felt, but sadly, slowly waning.  His last time davenning with us was at the Yamim Noraim in 5769, the first year Simon Lobelson, another student of Cantor Deutsch’s, led our services.  His last visit here was as Chatan Bereshit on Simchat Torah 5770.  He may have been frail, but our love for him remained strong.

For Michael Deutsch was a humble hero, a true servant of God through his service of humanity.  Michael forever was a man of large, giving hands and an equally large and beautiful heart.  I stand with each of you who have been privileged to be touched by Michael and loved by him to say to him in return, “Michael I love you and am eternally grateful for your presence in my life, in our lives.”

From Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio:

In the foyer of the synagogue opposite the portrait of Michael, such that it looks as if he is standing there in his tallit, prayer book in hand reading the words, is a quote from the prophet Micah. “It hath been told thee o man what is good and what the Lord doth require of thee, only to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Is there a person who more exemplifies the words of this passage than our beloved Cantor Michael Deutsch? He was an incredible man, a gift to all who were blessed to know him. Michael was a person who touched lives, he brought goodness, beauty and love into the world, boundless and limitless love, arms always open wide, to embrace and protect, to soothe and comfort, to guide and nurture, to bless. And those hands, big, beautiful hands which had turned the pages of holy books, touched the scrolls of parchment caressed by generations of his family, hands which toiled in the camps, worked until they were raw, hands which saved his life and tried to stem the tide of hate in the world. Big, strong hands which gently cradled babies, brushing them with the touch of the angels, hands which rested on the shoulders of thousands of bar mitzvah boys as they stood at the Torah, infusing them with strength and the wisdom of the ages, hands which grasped the arms of students, tapping and gently urging them forward with their learning, hands which were always filled with sweets and treats for the beloved children, hands which rested on the heads of brides and grooms, surrounding them with blessings, holy words, holy touch. Hands which held ours, hands which clasped ours as we cried tears of sorrow, comforting, healing hands. Hands which brought holiness into our world, hands which touched us with something magical, hands which channeled the essence of the man, the mensch, the beautiful soul shining within, the holy light that he brought to the world.

Michael was born in Verbo which was then the Czech Republic and he joined the chain of generations of his family to be cantors. Music was in his soul, it was part of the essence of who he was. When Michael was only four years old he led the service with his father, already a shining talent, a channel through which the angels would sing. Michael’s father was a cantor and the family moved often in his younger years, travelling to whichever communities his father was posted. Eventually they settled in Nyerethauser Hungary where Michael’s father was the head cantor and shochet. Michael admired and loved his father and the two cut a fine figure walking to shule together in matching suits and canes, sharing the beauty of tradition and the joy of singing together.

But Michael’s carefree youth would be cut cruelly short with the arrival of the Holocaust. The savagery, brutality and horror that Michael witnessed and experienced was indescribable. He saw his father led to his death. His beloved sister Oronko, who was pregnant was murdered and her children cruelly slaughtered. And through it all, Michael carried on, strong and determined to survive. Despite injuries and illnesses, he clutched on to hope and life and he brought others with him. He sang in the camp to lift the spirits of those around him, transporting them to a world beyond the darkness and hate, to the times of goodness and joy. He led prayer services, using his gifts to elevate those around him, to bring them life.

After the war was over, Michael made his way home to find that over 100 immediate members of the Deutsch family had been murdered. He and his beloved mother were the only survivors. How he managed to move forward into life again was testament to his indominitable spirit, his beautiful soul and the nature and essence of who he was. In humanity’s darkest hour, he remained a shining beacon of hope and love. But post war Hungary was a harsh and oppressive environment and Michael wanted a different and better life for himself and his family. He applied to come to Australia, obtained a visa and set sail with people who would be friends for life, to create a future away from the hurt and suffering. In Sydney he was together with Ella, his cousin, one of the few members of his extended family to survive and with whom, along with her family, he was very close. They supported and cared for one another like brother and sister.

When Michael arrived in Sydney, one of the first places he discovered was Bondi Beach. It was love at first sight. When he cast his eyes over the vast ocean and the white sands, he knew he was home. From that moment, after all his wanderings, he found his home (place) and he became the most proud Australian. And he became a legend on Bondi Beach, jogging, running, swimming or walking, he knew everyone and they knew him. He soaked up the air, the freedom and the beauty and shed its light back to all those around him. He sang as he exercised, he sang in the showers and he connected with people from all walks of life, brushing them with a little of that special Michael Magic. And today the flag at the North Bondi Surf Club flies at half mast in his honour.

Life in Australia however was not all about Bondi Beach, Michael had work to do and he set about finding employment and learning English. The latter he did by reading comic books because they had pictures to guide him and he found employment in a number of places working on the docks, using his strength to carry alone what would usually take three men, working in a glass factory with the Spink family and in sales with the Casparis. And it was there that a chance encounter changed Michael’s and our community’s lives forever. Michael was in a goods lift, singing as always, and someone outside the lift heard the most magical voice singing Jewish music. The person determined to find the source of the angelic voice and he followed the goods lift, running up the stairs so he would not escape. When the lift opened, out came Michael. In astonishment the man asked him how he had such an incredible voice and what on earth he was doing in a goods lift. Michael explained that he was a cantor but doing whatever work he could to support himself and enable him to bring his family to join him in Australia. The person was from Temple Emanuel and brought him immediately to his home and Rabbi Brash, and Michael sang. In that moment, he began what would be more than 50 years of devoted and loving service to Temple Emanuel and the Sydney Jewish community.

He prayed, chanted Torah, conducted weddings, funerals, brit milah, baby namings, he blessed, consoled, laughed and cried and he taught. Who can ever forget the chaos of his bar mitzvah lessons? Students running around the room, noise and laughter, and in the centre, Michael, with a student, endlessly patient, guiding with wisdom, love and a pocket full of lollies. There was not a student that Michael could not teach and he stood proudly beside all his bar mitzvah boys, beaming with pride at their achievements, celebrating with their families. It was Michael’s calling and despite being told that he had a voice, which if he had different opportunities earlier in his life, could have been shaped to be one of the world’s greatest, and an offer to join an opera company and sing there, Michael remained with the synagogue, singing and connecting with people and his tradition.

And it was at Emanuel that Michael met his beloved Ruth. Ruth’s family wanted her to meet a nice Jewish boy and so her aunt brought her along to services at the synagogue. The night was cold and raining and Ruth remembers hearing a deep, accented voice asking if he could take her umbrella. She surrendered it and went to sit in the service. She said the moment he began to sing she knew that Michael, the chivalrous stranger, was the one for her, forever. After the service Michael found Ruth again to return her umbrella, his ploy to ensure that the beautiful, young woman would not leave without his number. They arranged to go out and love blossomed, a love that would remain strong and true for over 50 years, a partnership which was truly special. Michael and Ruth had a wonderful courtship but he would not marry her until his mother and son had met her and given their approval. Before long, Michael was able to bring his family to join him in Australia. Immediately Tom and Irene gave their assent and two weeks later Michael and Ruth were engaged.

Michael adored Ruth and she him. She supported and loved him, was there every moment to give him whatever he needed, to make his life as rich and full as she possibly could. She was his rock, the other half that made him whole. They were an incredible team, giving to each other but also to the community. Ruth was such a blessing in Michael’s life and even in these last months, when her advanced Alzheimers has made her unable to recognise her family, she always had a smile for Michael as they sat together holding hands, an unbreakable bond and connection always linking them to one another. Ruth is not well enough to be here today but we know that in her way she is with Michael, together forever and all our love and prayers are with her.

Michael’s mother was another woman central in his life. The two had such a close bond, forged through times of adversity, through survival and through love. So much of Michael’s goodness was a reflection of his mother, her presence and guidance, boundless love and devotion to him. Michael adored his mother and she was his friend, confidant, supporter and guide.

As much as Michael gave to the synagogue and community, family was central in his life. He was so proud of his children and he loved them with the fullness of his heart. And he and Ruth were beautiful models of what it means to be a parent. Tommy, Martin and Irene were the source of such joy for Michael and a true blessing in his world. He was a wonderful father, loving, giving and so much fun. He wanted to give them the world and he did. He took them on magical journeys with his story telling, creating worlds with his words, he played with them, was silly with them and enjoyed every minute in their presence. When Michael came home, the family said that the air became electric, charged and infused with his joy, love of life and boundless energy. And he was always sure to have “what to eat” for his family, guests, friends, it was important to him that people should enjoy food as he did. Michael loved to drive and take the family on adventures in the car. On weekends, short trips and for holidays, longer journeys and he would sing the entire way, filling the car with music. He took the family on an amazing three month trip overseas and it was then he was bitten by the travel bug. After that, he and Ruth took cruises, travelled and saw the world. But the three months together as a family was a special and precious time, enjoying his family and being together. He embraced Christine and Imogen, welcoming them into the ever growing family, and more recently, David’s wife Amy, each one with their own special connection to Michael. And Michael remained close to Magda, her son Tibby and his family.

One of the greatest blessings in Michael’s life was his grandchildren. Michael always had a special affinity with children, he was able to meet them on their level and knew exactly what they loved to do. And children could sense his goodness, his energy and they were drawn to him but none more so than his grandchildren: David, Robert, Max, Lauren, Hunter and Sam. Each one had their own special relationship with their Bampa, a name coined by David who could not say Grandpa. Michael always had special treats for them, chocolates or lollies and he would take them to amusement parlours, his pockets filled with a seemingly endless supply of coins. And of course he brought music into their worlds, singing to them, playing with them and loving them. And an extra special blessing; his great grandchildren, another generation to love and spoil, with the birth of Daniel and Olivia. What incredible riches, and what a gift to have such a precious Bampa.

One of Michael’s proudest moments as an Australian and a Jew was when he was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community. Recognition from his country for all that he gave and continued to give to those around him, acknowledgement of his years of devotion. Michael also enjoyed a number of hobbies. He loved to have a flutter on the horses, the pokies and playing the lottery which he won on one occasion. He was also passionate about soccer and along with his many friends, was a loyal and vocal supporter of Hakoah. They attended the games, ate pumpkin seeds and cheered on their team.

At the soccer, shopping, on the beach, wherever he was it was impossible for Michael to walk two steps without being stopped and greeted by someone he knew. He was magnetic, a shining light in the world, a true mensch. Michael gave so much love to the world and people responded to him with love. I don’t think anyone knew more people than Michael, and I don’t know anyone who ever had a bad word to say about him. He was universally loved and adored, admired and respected. He said during a speech at a family event “there are three things in life that are important: love, love and love” and that is what Michael was about too: love, love and love. So remarkable given the horrific experiences of his life, he did not respond with bitterness and hate but with love. He embraced all people, met them where they were, reached out to them with goodness, compassion and love. Kings and princes were the same in his eyes as common folk, everyone wants to be loved, and Michael was the source of love, an ever flowing stream of love, warmth and beauty, giving to the world, touching people with his goodness.

On Wednesday, the eve of Chanukah, the world became a little darker, a little colder when Michael died. This year we need the light of our Chanukah candles more than ever, to shine into the darkness, to warm us, to fill the gaping hole left by the death of such a precious soul and an incredible man. And today we come together to remember, to remember a man who was larger than life, a gentle, humble soul who shed light, warmth and beauty on all those he touched. Who blessed us with his voice, the gift of song, a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves. We remember him in his greatest moments, a mensch, a son, a husband, father, father in law, grandfather, great grandfather, our cantor and our friend.  Mima’amikim karati elecha, out of the depths we call to you God, hear our cry. Today we are a community in the depths, we are mourning the loss of our beloved Michael. There are not enough tears to cry to ease the hurt of his loss, there are not enough words to contain our thoughts, our love, our pain. From the depths of our hearts we cry, rivers, oceans of tears for the loss of one of the greatest men we have known.

from Rabbi Brian Fox:

Cantor Michael Deutsch was the most extraordinary human being I have ever known. A giant of a man who could be so gentle. A silent prayer who could be so grand!  Meir Naftoli Tzvi ben Elimelech had more yiddishkeit in his little finger than many greater than he have in their whole bodies. He lived Judaism. He exuded Jewish values. He exemplified what it means to be a Jew. Michael was from the kleine shtetl of nyerethauser but was never defined by a shtetl mentality. He was so proud of being recognised: from Premiers of NSW to Attorneys General  :everyone great and small was Michael’s chaver. Michael was so proud of the time he and Ruth had a puncture on a road in the  back blocks of Queensland  and 4 (or was it 5—it changed every time he told the story)  cars stopped and the driver of each said “ Cantor Deutsch do you need any help?” “you see”, he would  say “I can’t even play around without everyone knowing.” Will we ever forget those huge hands?: the sons and grandsons share that big man look. Michael had no favourites among his children: each one was a gift of God.  But if he had had a favourite Irene would have been the one. He was so proud of them all. His Ruth was his English rose: reserved, quiet,gentle: always proud of her  Michael. Michael Deutsch never forgot a kindness: When the Temple sent him  and Ruth around the world in celebration of decades at the Temple I engineered it through the big names of the Hungarian community.It took only a morning to arrange.They were all Tzolosh’s friends. When we wanted to fund The Emanuel School: Michael took me to his chavers and the cash flowed: from liquor dealers, to shmatter dealers, to The Gelato Bar, to Hunter’s Lodge: they were all Michael’s friends: he was there for them and they were there for him.

It was in the Pulpit that Michael  truly excelled. He was a genius of chazanut. His was not a sweet sound but it was a big sound.  He may not have been note perfect but he certainly was note worthy. His hashkivaynu was second to none.  He happily shared it with other chazanim: few could measure up to his grandeur. His  avinu malkaynu soared to the heavens.. But no one will forget his Kol Nidray. His chaver John Saunders who shared Michael’s coat on the way to Australia loved to say “I come to shul only to hear Michael’s Kol Nidray”.

Michael simply loved  everyone. His hugs. His big wet kisses. His memory for your face even if he didn’t remember your name: all of that was Michael.

Each year I got Michael to tell his experience in the Holocaust. We would all weep: his lost his adored Sister and many many members of his family. “How could you sing in the camp?” someone would ask Michael. And he would answer “I sang in my mother’s womb and no Hitler on earth would stop me!”

“Where was God Cantor Deutsch: where was God?” And without a hint of embarrassment he would say “God was crying with us all in the Holocaust”.

Meir Naftoli Tzvi ben Elimelech we weep at your death as we rejoiced in your life. Tzolosh we loved your humour and your wholesale destruction of the English language.  Cantor  Michael Deutsch we standto honour  your presence: for the likes of you we never expect to meet again.

from Joseph Toltz:

I write with sadness on the day of the death of my moreh, my mentor, Michael Deutsch.

The passing of the Reverend Michael Deutsch OAM marks the passing of an era for Sydney Jewry.

He was the last of the great wave of ministers who arrived just before the war or post war to grace the pulpits of Sydney’s synagogues, and serve our rapidly changing Jewish population. These men enriched our communities with sophisticated, cosmopolitan sensibilities, and served with dedication and grace in a strange land.

Many tributes today will recount Michael’s history and involvement in the community – the ever-present role he played in officiating in all manner of life cycle events, his countless devotion to the Temple, his interfaith work, his musical work in the greater community, his dignified public presence as a survivor of the Shoah, and an early spokesperson for survivors.  When I started along his path, serving as officiant at life-cycle events, the question first posed to me was always “Var iz Daitch?”   That was the extent of his presence.

Rather than discussing the communal figure, I want to speak of Michael on a personal level as a teacher and mentor, because he fulfilled that role for me profoundly.

Michael Deutsch welcomed me to Temple Emanuel with outstretched arms (as he did with all-comers). He and I had an exceptional working relationship, and he made me feel secure in his environment.

He taught me in so many unspoken ways how to approach community – through kindness, making people feel at ease.  He was gentle.

Michael had a great memory for tunes, as well as the ability to daven with kheyn and kh’shives (beauty and dignity).  He was generous with his knowledge and time.  We worked exceptionally well together, and as I gained more insights, I would constantly consult him for advice.  He was generous with praise, and wise enough to know to have a quiet word when correction was needed.  One of the key phrases of Talmudic wisdom (Mishna 3:11) that he imparted to me, one that i continue to keep close, is that one must never humiliate another human being, for one that violates this will lose their share in the Olam HaBa.

Michael was deprived of formal musical training because of the disruption of the war on his career.  But his natural musical ability, kind personality and adaptability to any situations made up for it.  He was an exceptional musician.  His Hashkivenu and Mevar’chim haChodesh were exemplars of the cantorial art.  One of my favourites was his Kadshenu b’Mitzvotecha from the Shacharit service.  We loved to sit together and listen to our favourite Khazn from the golden age, Moishe Koussevitsky.  His Yiddish singing and the rendition of Szol a Kakas Már helped me refine my own thoughts about the place of music in the Shoah.

I will remember many funny, quirky things that Michael would whisper to me on the bimah before I began to daven.  Of these, one of the repeatable ones was “remember boychik, Hebrew goes from right to left”.

Michael Deutsch reminded me that you look someone in the eye when you shake their hand, and you grip firmly but with warmth.

My deepest sympathies go out to Ruth, Tommy, Martin, Irene and the whole family at this time of great loss, as well as his greater family and friends in the Sydney community.

Ven men fort aroys vayst men, ven men kumt tsurik vayst men nit.

We know when we start out; when we’ll return, we know not.

Zichrona livrecha

May his memory be a blessing

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