South Africas blind chazzan, 96, just held his 3rd bar mitzvah

CAPE TOWN — It's "not nice" to die on one's birthday, Abe Immerman used to say; it's better to wait a day or two.

Immerman, who became a legend as South Africa's "blind chazzan," took his own advice: Three days after he turned 96 — and two days after having his third bar mitzvah — Immerman passed away.

Despite his lifelong disability, Immerman knew the Bible and prayers by heart and had trained generations of South African boys for their b'nai mitzvah.

Immerman's exceptional memory was first recognized by a pastor who taught him when he was a child growing up in Zastron, in the Free State area of South Africa.

He subsequently was sent to the Worcester School for the Blind, where teachers felt he would do well as a basket maker or a piano tuner.

But Immerman had ideas of his own, despite his family's objections.

"I was determined to become a chazzan," or cantor, he recalled in later years.

In the early days, Immerman earned a living by leading prayers in the various villages where Jews had settled in South Africa and working out yahrzeit dates for their deceased family members.

He eventually reached the rural town of Oudtshoorn, where he stayed for a number of years, giving bar mitzvah lessons and traveling to various rural communities around South Africa to lead holiday services.

After Immerman moved to Cape Town some 60 years ago, his first job was at the Ponevez shul.

"His fame spread, and after that he got a job at the Woodstock overflow shul," said lifelong friend Morrie Marcus.

Immerman later worked at Cape Town's Herzlia Jewish Day School, teaching bar mitzvah lessons and music, while still traveling the country to lead prayers on the High Holy Days.

One of the high points of Immerman's life was a trip to Israel on his 80th birthday, Marcus said.

"He was feted and treated like royalty by all his South African friends and former pupils," he said. "The highlight of that trip was when he went into Heichal Shlomo — the seat of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel — on Shabbat morning. He walked in, they cleared the decks and gave him the Maftir and Haftarah.

"They literally carried him off the bimah," Marcus said. "They had never experienced anything like this before, that a blind man can walk cold into shul and perform so wonderfully."

On the occasion of his third bar mitzvah, Immerman was called up for an aliyah at a special Shabbat morning service at the shul of Highlands House, the home for Jewish elderly where he spent the last few years of his life.

Solly Alpert, Immerman's first bar mitzvah pupil when he arrived in Cape Town, chanted the Maftir and Haftarah.

The uncanny thing about the time of Immerman's death was his own saying about choosing the right time to die.

On April 7, he reportedly asked his nurse for "a drink of water before I go,'' had a sip and then slipped away quietly.