Jesse's Journal: Michael Robert Greenspan (1949-2017)

I met Michael Robert Greenspan on the last Sabbath of February, 1985; and I lost him on the last Sabbath of February, 2017. During those 32 years Michael enriched my life more than any person ever could, other than my parents. 

Michael was my partner, my lover, my best friend and my soul mate. He was, as he once said, my beshert, my destiny. Michael was never my husband, not because we did not want to marry but because marriage equality came too late for him. That was but one of the tragedies of his five final years. There was a lot that Michael had the potential for, and which he could have accomplished, had he not been struck by the demon of dementia.

Michael was an amazing, multi-faceted human being, and not just because he was the love of my life. When I met Michael, he was 35 and already accomplished much. Born in Asheville, North Carolina, his father was a Jewish pharmacist from New York City and his mother a Jewish Southern belle from Bishopville, South Carolina. Michael and his two brothers grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he spoke with a Southern accent until he got rid of it in his twenties. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1972, and to the end of his life was a proud Tar Heel.

During the early seventies Michael managed a cigar store in Atlanta and became a wine connoisseur. But his greatest passion was for the accordion. Like many children, Michael learned to play the squeeze box when he was a boy. However, unlike many children, Michael continued to play the accordion while others went on to other pursuits. Michael’s and his accordion played all kinds of music, including Jewish, Gypsy and all forms of eastern European and Middle Eastern music. 

Unlike other accordionists, Michael was also a great singer, a fine composer, and an accomplished arranger. During the 1970s’ Michael was one half of the Erev Duo, which he formed with David Goodfriend and then one fourth of the American Balalaika Company, though Michael did not play the balalaika. Michael and the other members of the ABC – Paul Merz, Arthur Ganz and Sandra Peterson Ganz – traveled the world, from state fairs to cruise ships, playing and singing the music that they loved. As Michael’s partner I went with him to many accordion-playing excursions, most famously to Orlando to the Florida Accordionist Association’s annual SMASH conventions, weekend gatherings devoted to all things accordion. You might say that I was “married to the accordion.”

Michael was at the height of his musical career in the early eighties when he moved to Miami and came to terms with his sexual orientation. In February 1985 he read an ad in David magazine for a “gay” synagogue, Congregation Etz Chaim. At the time CEC resided in a storefront in Ojus, now part of Aventura, and we did not have a rabbi. I was one of the Temple’s lay leaders; and it happened that I was leading service the night Michael first walked in the door. 

Michael later said that he fell in love twice that night: with Congregation Etz Chaim and with me (or vice versa). I was at the end of my previous relationship at that time and had no interest in starting a new one but Michael was persistent. As I wrote in “When Love Lasts Forever,” a 1999 anthology about male couples edited by Merle James Yost, “Michael went from being one of many to being the main one to being the only one. In August I moved out of the North Broward house that I shared with my ex and joined Michael in an apartment in Fort Lauderdale. Michael and I lived in that apartment until 1992, when we moved into a condominium home in Plantation” where I still live.

Though Michael was more experienced than I in so many things, as a relative newbie to gay life Michael was unfamiliar with South Florida’s LGBT community. Being an active member myself, I introduced Michael to my friends and to groups that I belonged to; groups that he soon joined: Pride South Florida, the Stonewall Library, South Florida Bears, Saber MC. He also became an active member of Congregation Etz Chaim, and for the next 26 years emerged as of the most important people in this Synagogue’s 42-year history. 

Michael was elected to the Board within a year of becoming a member; and was President of the Congregation from 1986 to 1988 and from 1996 to 1998. But here again his most important contributions were musical. Michael was CEC’s unofficial cantor almost from the moment he arrived; and its official cantorial soloist from 1999 to 2011. Because of his valuable contributions Michael received several awards and was an honoree at Etz Chaim’s 35th Anniversary Gala in 2007. Michael was also honored by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida, now the Pride Center at Equality Park, as one of its “Stars of the Rainbow” in 2008.

Though Michael never had children, he always desired to be a teacher. When he neared forty, Michael decided to put his musical career on the back burner and become an educator, studying for and receiving a Master of Education degree from Florida Atlantic University in 1990. Not surprisingly, Michael became as accomplished a teacher as he was as a musician. As a fourth grade teacher in Welleby Middle School in Sunrise and as a technology specialist at Millennium Middle School in Tamarac Michael taught and shaped a generation of young people. Because of his exemplary accomplishments as an educator, Michael was a finalist for Broward County Teacher of the Year in 1997. Michael loved to teach; he loved his students; and he might have continued teaching to this day if his illness had not forced him to retire.

My relationship with Michael Greenspan had its ups and downs but, on the whole, the good vastly outweighed the bad. As I wrote in “When Love Lasts Forever,” Michel and I “shared a lot in common: music, the theater, chocolate, nature walks, stuffed animals, the Blue Ridge Parkway, liberal politics, leather and bear clubs and, of course, Congregation Etz Chaim. Sometimes I wondered how he put up with me, but I am glad” he did. Our relationship was based on mutual love, respect, and care. I learned a lot from Michael, at home and in our travels to Great Britain – we were both avid Anglophiles – France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Panama, western Canada and Alaska.

Michael often expressed the wish that we would grow old together and retire to his beloved birthplace of Asheville, North Carolina. Sadly, this was not meant to be. Towards the end, as dementia ravaged his mind and his body, Michael lost the means to communicate effectively. Even so, I like to think that, deep down inside, Michael was still the person that I loved and cared for the past 32 years. Though Michael’s life is through, I still cherish the years that we spent together and he will always be part of my life, no matter what I do or who I meet in my remaining years. 

Thank you, Michael, for making my life worth living.