A gathering of family, friends and acquaintances of “America’s Tenor” joined a Jewish archivist to mark the anniversary of legendary performer Jan Peerce’s passing with prayers, Torah study and the sharing of stories. A product of the Lower East Side, Peerce, whose parents were Belorussian immigrants, rose to prominence with performances at the Metropolitan Opera and in 1971, made his Broadway debut as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
At services marking his passing, Rabbi Hershel Okonov, director of F.R.E.E. – a Chabad-Lubavitch organization catering to the needs of immigrants from Eastern Europe that Peerce and his wife Alice served as lay leaders for close to two decades – delivered the traditional Kaddish memorial prayer and spoke about Peerce’s life and love of Judaism.
“My father loved Rabbi Okonov,” Peerce’s daughter revealed in an interview with Rabbi Dovid Zaklikowski, an editor for the Judaism website Chabad.org. “Whenever I saw them together, I saw a strong bond between them.”
Peerce also maintained correspondence with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who told the tenor that “through the medium of song and melody, one can touch directly upon the heartstrings of the listener and inspire his inner soul.”
“I never formally joined the Lubavitch movement,” Peerce would later say. “I just am a Lubavitcher.”
Zaklikowski, who uncovered letters between Peerce and the Rebbe as part of his research into the Rebbe’s correspondence with different public figures, travelled to the singer’s resting place in Westchester, N.Y., to recite Psalms and pray for the wellbeing of his family. He later went to the Ohr Hameir theological seminary, where Rabbi Mendel Kanerik shared memories of his students visiting Peerce’s home on the Sabbath and his recollections of Peerce’s wit.
The Rebbe's Letter to Peerce
Below is an excerpt from the letter to Peerce, courtesy of the book project: Dear Rebbe: The Famous and Unknown Correspond with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson a project of Lubavitch Archives.
Your joining this ever growing Chasidic family who have found a new meaning in life and, with it, peace and happiness, has a special significance in that you are a Kohen, and also in that Divine Providence has given you a gift of song and melody. For this is a medium that directly communicates with the heart and the inner aspects of the soul, unlike prose which speaks to the intellect and only then can probe deeper. Through the medium of song and melody one can touch directly upon the heartstrings of the listener and inspire his inner soul, which is the reason why song and melody have such a prominent part in Chasidus [Hassidism] in general, and in Chabad in particular.
In the light of the above, I extend to you both my prayerful wishes to utilize to the full the capacities and opportunities which G‑d has given you in the above mentioned direction, and to do this in the Chabad way – with complete trust in G‑d and with inspiration, and may G‑d bless you with Hatzlocho [success] to go from strength to strength in all above, in good health and with gladness of heart.