Navigate to Arts & Letters section

How an American Jewish Opera Star Accidentally Launched the Soviet Jewish Movement

The 60th anniversary of Jan Peerce’s landmark Cold War Moscow show, where a final encore pointed the way to deliverance

James Loeffler
June 30, 2016
Photo collage by Tablet Wikipedia
Photo collage by Tablet Wikipedia

“The walls have ears.” In the Soviet Union, someone was always listening. But when it came to music, the regime built on eavesdropping proved remarkably tone-deaf. That is the lesson that American Jewish opera star Jan Peerce learned during his 1956 Moscow concert tour. Sixty years ago this week, he walked onstage at the Moscow Conservatory and stepped into an unscripted role as the West’s first lifeline to Soviet Jewry in the post-Stalin era. With one last-minute encore, he unwittingly helped spark the Soviet Jewish movement.

Proudly American, sentimentally Jewish, and steadfastly apolitical, Peerce was an unlikely Cold War activist. He was born Yehoshua Pinkhes Perelmuth to Russian immigrant parents in 1904 on New York’s Lower East Side. The family of seven crammed into an Orchard Street tenement apartment together with grandparents and a rotating cast of boarders. Peerce’s father Louis suffered his way through the sweatshop trade before taking over a catering hall, which he ran with his wife Anna. Young Jacob, as he was called in English, showed early talent as a meshoyrer (chorister) in the famed Henry Street Synagogue and played the violin in a klezmer band. But music was no future for a nice Jewish boy. At his parent’s insistence, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and entered Columbia University with plans to study medicine. That plan soon ended, however, when he flunked out for poor grades.

With nothing to lose, Jacob Pinkhes Perelmuth reinvented himself as Jack “Pinky” Pearl, successful Borscht Belt bandleader. He became a fixture on the 1920s New York dance band circuit. Then in the early 1930s, his lyric tenor voice earned him a role with the newly created Radio City Music Hall broadcast company. In 1938, Metropolitan Opera conductor Arturo Toscanini heard him on the radio and summoned him for an audition. Despite little classical training, he rocketed to fame as an opera singer on radio and stage. His 1945 song recording, “Bluebird of Happiness” further solidified him as a national star, the first classical artist to cross over into popular music.

In cultivating his public image, Peerce exhibited a canny awareness of the optics of Jewish celebrity. When a promoter insisted he change his name to “John Pierce,” he pushed back. Passing was not for him. He settled on “Jan Peerce,” more English but still ethnic enough to nod to his Jewish roots. Success demanded compromise and work came first—but only to a point. If Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer stood for the 1920s generation that saw a stark choice between faith and fame, Peerce epitomized a younger cohort more adept at balancing the two. That meant finding a home in the Conservative movement, where he often performed as a lay cantor. “I am a Jew and a Jew not only in name,” he once told an interviewer, and while I am “not shomer Shabbos, I try to observe it when possible.” The apologetic tone suggested a twinge of guilt, which he assuaged with a curious habit. He took to appearing incognito at synagogues across the country, where he would volunteer to lead daily services, only to reveal his identity afterwards.

In the spring of 1956, Peerce’s easy braid of American and Jewish faced a new kind of test. Out of the blue arrived an invitation to tour the Soviet Union. Sol Hurok, the legendary Russian-born Jewish impresario, had negotiated a deal for two of his stars—Jan Peerce and violinist Isaac Stern—to play Russia that summer. It was not an easy decision. The proposed schedule was grueling: six solo concerts and six stage appearances in three different operas across three cities, all in the space of four weeks. Beyond the strain, Peerce worried that his visit might serve Communist propaganda. Many Jews around the country felt the same. Letters arrived begging him not go. (Nor was this merely symbolic. Years later Hurok himself would be wounded and one of his employees killed in a bomb attack on his Manhattan offices attributed to the Jewish Defense League, who denounced his cultural diplomacy efforts.) For its part, the Eisenhower State Department approved the trip, viewing the export of American culture as a low-risk, high-reward front in the Cold War.

For weeks Peerce agonized over the decision. In the end, though, a combination of personal curiosity and public ambition won out. He longed to see his parents’ homeland with his own eyes. And he wanted to make history as the first American opera singer ever to perform at Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Opera. Strikingly, what did not occur to him, however, was that his performances might touch a chord inside Soviet Jewry.


After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union entered the tremulous period of change known as the Thaw. Under Nikita Khrushchev the leadership cautiously groped their their way toward a mild reformism. Desperate for trade with the West and eager to reboot the Soviet global image following the Stalinist Terror, the regime turned to cultural diplomacy. In the fall of 1955 Khrushchev dispatched two renowned Russian Jewish musicians, pianist Emil Gilels and violinist David Oistrakh, on tours of the United States. The following spring, after delivering his famous speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress, he approved plans to invite American artists to visit the Soviet Union.

From the Soviets’ perspective, there is little doubt that the 1956 overture to the American musical world was a charm offensive. It was one of many such efforts that spring. In April the New York Board of Rabbis, for instance, led at the time by Peerce’s own New Rochelle rabbi, David Golovensky, received a surprise invitation from the chief rabbi of Moscow to visit. For years before, letters sent to him had gone unacknowledged. In courting American rabbis, the Soviets intended to demonstrate to the world that Jews possessed complete religious freedom. Promoting ties with American Jewish artists would showcase the parallel story of Soviet Jewish cultural achievement. No one put it better than Russian-born violinist Isaac Stern, who quipped that Soviet-American cultural diplomacy consists of a simple pattern, “They send us their Jewish violinists from Odessa, and we send them our Jewish violinists from Odessa.” Though he hardly intended it as such, Stern’s observation jibed with the Soviet message: In both your country and ours, Jews are alive, well, and famous.

The reality facing Soviet Jews, of course, was far different. Rampant anti-Semitism still flourished in post-Thaw Soviet society, in both state-sanctioned and popular forms. Schools, universities, and many white-collar industries remained governed by discriminatory policies designed to maintain what Khrushchev described as “ethnic balance” between Russians and national minorities. The word “Jew” was practically taboo. Jewish religious life was subject to onerous restrictions designed to keep it tightly under the control of state supervision. The regime was openly antagonistic to Israel. Less than four years earlier Jews had been executed for the crime of Zionism. Studying Hebrew remained a dangerous political activity.

One of the few areas that the Soviets considered harmless was music. With the long history of Jews in Soviet musical life and a widespread stereotype of innate Jewish musical prowess, authorities viewed Jewish musicians as a benign presence in Russian cultural life. Perhaps this is why relatively few composers ended up in the gulag compared to Jewish writers. Even Stalin’s favorite comic crooner, Leonid Utesov, the Danny Kaye of Soviet cinema, was an Odessa Jew whose musical accent was obvious to all.

Under Khrushchev, public performances of explicitly Jewish music once again were permitted. Over the course of 1954 and 1955, scattered concerts took place in Moscow. In Vilnius in March 1956, folk singer Nechama Lifshitz delivered the first of a series of Yiddish song recitals that quickly turned her into a Soviet-wide cultural phenomenon. The Soviets even sent her abroad on international tours. Yet it was not long before Lifshitz started singing in Hebrew and became identified with the burgeoning Jewish national movement. What began as a state-approved release valve morphed into a potent symbol of political resistance. In a similar way, Peerce’s performance proved to be a double-edged sword for which Soviet authorities were not prepared.


The very same day in late June Jan Peerce and his wife Alice left New York for Russia, Isaac Stern returned from his own trip. The violinist called him to relay a crucial piece of advice, “The ears have walls.” Everything you say in the hotel and elsewhere will be listened to by the KGB. The words proved prophetic. For even as the Soviet authorities intrusively eavesdropped on foreign visitors, it was Soviet Jews who heard a special message in Peerce’s music.

Upon their arrival in Moscow, the Peerces were greeted by their official translator and KGB handler, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna. Eager to please important American visitors, she regaled the couple with her impressive knowledge of American cities and English poetry, recited by heart. But she made no secret of her displeasure at Peerce’s unseemly Jewish proclivities. When he requested kosher food, she snapped, “The food in the Soviet Union is good enough for our Jews. Why isn’t it for you?” Aleksandrovna grew visibly frustrated as Peerce flouted her efforts to control his interactions with local Jews he encountered by chatting comfortably in Yiddish. She needn’t have worried too much. Again and again, Jews approached him to whisper a quick, nervous greeting. They feared to say more. Those who couldn’t speak Yiddish still managed one phrase in Hebrew: “Oznayim likosal”—“The walls have ears.”

Peerce had no intention of courting controversy during his visit. He disliked the large posters advertising him as “Jan Peerce of the U.S.A.,” which “made me feel a little like a member of the American Davis Cup team.” Though he had a considerable roster of Yiddish and Hebrew songs in his repertoire, he made no special effort to insert them into his program. So, for the July 3 evening at the Moscow Conservatory he presented the usual assortment of Italian and French operatic arias with a few Russian and American songs thrown in for good measure.

The concert was a formal affair with a large swath of Soviet officialdom, the American and Israeli ambassadors, and other foreign dignitaries in attendance. Also there, sitting in the front row, was the recently arrived New York rabbinical delegation. This included Rabbi Golovensky, who had escorted Peerce’s 12-year old daughter to meet her parents. Adding to the excitement, the event was broadcast live on Radio Moscow.

At the intermission, the Israeli ambassador materialized backstage to greet Peerce. Why don’t you sing some Jewish songs, he asked, given all the Jews in the audience? Peerce protested, somewhat feebly, that he did not have the right sheet music with him. He’d left it back at the hotel. His wife Alice offered to run back and grab it. Aleksandrovna the translator protested—it was too far to go, there was no time. Their personal car and driver were off duty. Taxis were unavailable at this time of night. Undeterred, Alice announced she would ride the famed Moscow subway. Finally, Aleksandrovna relented and the limo promptly appeared. She was back within 20 minutes with the music.

At the concert’s end, Peerce delivered a rousing array of encores. For the sixth, he announced a Hebrew song, “Ha-yarden.” A frisson of tension could be felt throughout the room. Polite applause greeted its conclusion. Then came two Yiddish religiously themed songs, “A dudele,” and “A khazndl af shabos.” Each received tremendous applause. An exhausted Peerce was ready to call it quits. Instead, he decided for his final encore to sing just one more song: “A din toyre mit got” (A Plea to God). Composed by the Polish Hasidic leader Rebbe Levi-Yitshok of Berdichev (1740-1809), the “defense attorney” for the Jewish people, the song is unique in the annals of Ashkenazi Jewish music for its combination of deeply traditional piety with an overt discussion of the Jewish political fate in the modern world.

Soviet concerts featured the “compère” or prompter, who announced each number to the audience. Peerce informed him what he would sing, cautioning him not to obfuscate. His American accompanist spoke Russian and would catch any deception. When the song was announced, the effect on the crowd was electric. Sung in a mixture of Aramaic and Yiddish, the Hasidic kaddish-song offers an impassioned plea for Jewish deliverance, blending secular and spiritual:

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a lawsuit from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
Why have you punished Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”
And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”
And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.”

Father, sweet Father in heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say:

Yisgadal v ‘yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,

From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to this suffering.

Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.”

The song’s force hinges on the direct contrast between the temporal empires and the Jewish fealty to the true sovereign of universe. In the Communist context of official atheism, it took on an even greater punch. Marxist politics could brook no power higher than the state. Invoking the Jewish spiritual imagination thus challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet system as a whole.

Beyond that, the song referenced a topic perhaps even more taboo than Israel or Zionism in the Soviet Union: Jewish suffering. In a state where to speak about Jews as Nazi’s prime victims in the Holocaust was to invite accusations of Jewish chauvinism and anti-Soviet provocation, singing a Yiddish religious anthem of Jewish pain was a loaded political gesture.

Writing shortly afterwards, Rabbi Golovensky recalled the ripple effect spreading throughout the hall. As Peerce began to sing, emotion slowly began to build in the crowd. At the line “Why have you punished your people?” a large portion of the audience burst into tears. The applause grew deafening. The rafters shook. When it ended, the clapping and shouting rang out for so long that the house manager finally had to turn on the lights to force people out of the hall.

To Golovensky, the meaning of the July 3 concert incident was plain. “If these Sovietized and assimilated Jews can still be aroused by nostalgic Jewish music,” he reasoned, “there is reason to hope that this spark of Jewishness can be fanned into a bright flame.” He was clear-eyed enough to realize that the tenacity of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union was not simply the result of some innate root of emotion. Jews had remained Jewish in the absence of religion, culture, or politics, he observed, because the Soviets had insisted on legally branding them as such via the infamous Line 5 on their passports. “This identity imposed from without by the USSR has helped assure the survival of the Jewish people. This factor which made the Jew unassimilable may yet be responsible, given favorable conditions, for the revival and restoration of an affirmative and creative Jewish life.” And for a generation raised outside the synagogue, music was the surest way into a national revival.

Remarkably, the Soviet authorities themselves did not seem to grasp this link—at least not at first. Focused as they were on détente, they viewed Peerce as a boon to their diplomatic efforts. A little extra Jewish emotional schmaltz was unlikely to have a lasting effect. That opinion was made plain the day after the concert, when Khrushchev together with the other members of the leadership quartet—Bulganin, Malenkov, and Molotov—showed up at the U.S. Embassy for the annual July 4 Independence Day party hosted by the American ambassador.

The mood that day was cheerful, even playful. Khrushchev approached Peerce to apologize for missing the concert. He had been busy, he explained, negotiating with Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, joking that “I would much rather listen to your voice than some voices I have to listen to.” Khrushchev added that he would like to visit the United States: “We have lots to learn from America but they won’t let us in. They are afraid we might learn secrets on milking cows.” Peerce found himself at a loss for words. So, he simply thanked Khrushchev for his hospitality and expressed how much he, his wife, and his daughter had enjoyed seeing the country. The Soviet premier turned to U.S. Ambassador Chip Bohlen. “If you would harmonize certain voices in the U.S. with Peerce’s,” he declared, “we would have real pleasure listening.”

If Peerce’s visit to Russia had ended there, it might have confirmed the Soviet conviction that cultural diplomacy had served them well. Yet it did not. In the days after the concert, word spread rapidly throughout Moscow about Peerce’s appearance. Two weeks later, after touring Kiev and Leningrad, he returned to the city to discover he had become a Jewish celebrity. When he showed up to Shabbat services on Saturday morning at Great Synagogue, a crowd of thousands was waiting, eager to hear him daven. As he mounted the bimah to begin leading the first prayer of the Musaf service, he choked up. For the first time in his life, his throat gripped up on him from emotion. “I cried, they cried,” he recalled, and soon even the informers sent to spy on their fellow Jews had begun crying.

When Peerce reached the point in the Musaf service at which it is customary to recite a blessing over the local government, the gabbai (sexton) handed him a card with the names of the Soviet leadership. He refused to accept it. An argument ensued. Finally, determined to avoid a scandal, the gabbai chanted the prayer himself. It was a small victory that spoke volumes.


Peerce’s concert and synagogue appearance soon became the stuff of legend for Soviet Jews. When he toured Israel two years later, he was greeted by emotionally overwhelmed recent immigrants who told him how they had waited all night in the cold in Moscow to hear him. His prayers, they insisted, had helped them reach Israel. Subsequent concerts by other Israeli and Jewish artists had a similar effect. Soviet Jewish immigrants arriving in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s often pointed back to them as the key factor in their national awakenings.

In interviews afterwards, Peerce acknowledged his modest role in facilitating the revival of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. But he shied away from a heroic narrative. “It is not a question of going to Russia or any other place and becoming a rebel or a political leader,” he told one interviewer. “The idea is to give a handshake, a smile, the Yiddish vort, and to make them feel that we are brothers despite some of the limitations they may have in practicing our faith.” For him, this humble Jewish mission remained intertwined with his Americanness: “I travel as an American Jewish artist to show, first of all, that we do not hide our backgrounds; second of all, that we are products of America, and third of all, that we can produce something that is a credit too us as Americans and as Jews.” Most of all, though, he recognized the sustaining power of music. “Jewish and Hebrew songs” offered “ways and means of continuing Judaism” in the absence of access to education or true religious freedom.

The Soviets, for their part, continued to promote cultural exchange in the years after Peerce’s visit. But they slowly wised up to the alarming power of religious music to stir Jewish national consciousness. In a December 1956 interview with a Jewish member of a visiting delegation from the Canadian Labor Progressive Party, Khrushchev was asked about anti-Semitism in the USSR. He denied its existence. How could he be an anti-Semite, he told his visitor, when his daughter-in-law was Jewish and many Jews had powerful positions in the Soviet regime? The problem, Khrushchev explained, was not the government policies but simply the “negative aspects” of Soviet Jewry. Chief among their sins was a pesky religious predilection: “Wherever a Jew settles, he immediately establishes a synagogue.”

Peerce himself was invited for a return visit in 1963. Again he sang the same “Din-Toyre” song at Moscow’s Chaikovsky Hall. Once again, 2,000 people openly wept. This time, however, the authorities banned him from leading services at the Moscow Synagogue. Cutting off Peerce’s access to the cantor’s pulpit while allowing him to sing Yiddish songs at the concert hall must have seemed like a successful regime strategy for cordoning Jewish emotions into appropriate channels. But what the Soviet authorities missed was the fact that the two bled into one another. Despite five decades of attempts to extract a wholly secular, anti-religious Jewishness from Yiddish culture, spiritual and national were deeply intertwined in Soviet Jewish memory.

During the 1956 visit, an old Russian Jew quietly joked to the New York rabbis: “The members of your delegation can speak many languages, but we Russian Jews can keep quiet in all of them.” Deprived of their own voices, Soviet Jews retreated into silence. It was a strategy for survival. The less they spoke, however, the more they heard. In the process, they turned listening from a passive experience into a creative act of renewal.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today