1904 - 1984
By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
There can be few people who have an interest in Chazanut who don't know
that Jan Peerce was also a famous opera singer. However, what many of
them won't know is that Peerce was also a genuinely committed Jew.
It is reported that he was exceedingly particular about putting on
Tefillin every day and that he would not, in any circumstances, eat
anything other than Kosher food.
In his book about Chazanim and Chazanut, 'B'ron Yachad', Akivah Zimmerman
relates how Rockerfeller once asked Jan Peerce to sing at a special
performance for him, and in Peerce's honour, Rockerfeller indicated that
he wanted to prepare a festive banquet.
Since he didn't eat Treif, Peerce explained that he wouldn't be able to
participate in the meal, as he made it his practice never to eat before
"That's fine," said Rockerfeller, "we'll all eat afterwards."
In order to extricate himself from the corner into which he'd got himself,
Peerce said that after a performance he only drank tea, and always waited
a long time before having a proper meal!
Jan Peerce was born Jacob Pincus Perlemuth and as a youngster he trained
as a violinist. In the early part of his career, he played and sang in
At the start of his performing career, Peerce used to play the violin.
In order to 'pad it out' he started to sing popular songs and it was
almost by accident that it was found that he had an unusually good voice.
He was engaged to sing with the Radio City Music Hall company and,
since they frequently appeared on the radio, he soon became a well-known
performer of light classical songs and operatic arias.
The famous conductor Arturo Toscanini heard him and decided to engage
him to sing the lead in his recordings of opera and choral pieces.
Jan Peerce made his formal debut in Philadelphia in 1938, and then with
the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, in 1941.
Although he made countless appearances as guest Chazan in various
Synagogues, he never held a regular post.
Jan Peerce was widely regarded as a very fine operatic performer, but
was certainly not snobbish when it came to music. In 1971 he made his
Broadway debut as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof!
As far as his Cantorial work was concerned, Peerce had a close working
relationship with Abraham Ellstein, who was a very well-known composer
and arranger of liturgical pieces and Yiddish music, particularly for
the Yiddish operetta theatre.
He made numerous visits to Israel. In Chazzanic circles Jan Peerce was
welcomed as a Chazan, and in the world of opera, as one of the finest
tenors of modern times.
© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler
Keywords: Jan Peerce, biography.