Judaism teaches us not to believe in idols. But, shhhh….don’t tell my Rabbi…I’ve had one for most of my adult life: Flory Jagoda.
Hers might not be a name you know readily, but you’ve likely heard of her Hanukkah song, if you know any songs in Ladino, “Ocho Kandelikas.” While many think of “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”) as a traditional Sephardic tune, it was actually written by Flory Jagoda in only 1983. There is a reason it has become a classic, and, according to one of her daughters, has over 500 recorded renditions today.
Ocho Kandelikas, like so many of Flory’s songs, was written with a simple and delightful melody that could be easily sung by others. And, like Flory herself, the lyrics were simply filled with joy.
The fact that Flory exhibited such joy in her music is hard to believe given the travails of her wartime youth. Flory was born to a musical family in 1923 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Sarajevo, like other neighboring Balkan cities, had a large Sephardic community, made up of Jews escaping 15th century, Inquisition-era Spain. When Nazis invaded in April 1941, Flory fled on a train to Split (in Croatia), using false identity papers. All the ride she played her beloved accordion and so entranced passengers with her song-playing that the conductor never asked for her papers.
For several years, her family kept running from the oncoming war and moved between islands off the Croatian coast. Eventually, Flory’s family ended up in British-liberated Italy, after the Sephardic community of Sarajevo (including much of her family who stayed behind) was obliterated. While in Italy, Flory fell in love with a U.S. soldier, Harry Jagoda, and returned to America with him as a war bride in 1946.
Since that time, Flory dedicated her life to recording and preserving Sephardic music in the Ladino language of her family. She recorded Ladino songs she remembered from her grandmother, “Kantikas Di Mi Nona” (“Songs of My Grandmother”) as well as memories of her beloved Sarajevo. She also recorded songs that she wrote for her own grandchildren, La Nona Kanta” (“The Grandmother Sings”). Like “Ocho Kandelikas,” the songs on her albums are infused with the delicious and vivid textures of Sephardic life from the Balkans – from the pastelikos (sweet pastries) to the fiestas (parties). Listening to her songs, even the haunting ones, is like experiencing her Sephardic childhood firsthand, a snapshot into a world that, so devastatingly, was destroyed.
I feel that nostalgia in my DNA, as my own Sephardic family was from nearby Monastir (now known as Bitola, Macedonia), also razed during WWII. I, too, have spent most of my life dedicated to preserving the songs and memories of my Balkan Jewish heritage.
And I couldn’t do it if Flory hadn’t paved the way.
Flory was known to many as “Nona,” grandmother. Because of her trailblazing work in bringing Ladino music to the United States, she received the National Heritage Fellowship in 2002, the highest honor from the National Endowment for the Arts. Rightfully so, Flory is also the subject of a documentary, Flory’s Flame, and of a beautiful children’s book, The Key from Spain.
I only got to know Flory personally when she was already in her 90s, but her influence on the Ladino world has had an immeasurable hold on me since I started my career in Ladino music 20 years ago.
Hers was one of the first Ladino song books I owned, The Flory Jagoda Songbook, published in 1993. I learned the songs in the book page by page over many years. On one of my encounters with Flory a few years ago, I showed her my copy, tattered with pages falling out from decades of loving use. Her daughter presented me with a brand new book to replace my frayed one, but when Flory offered to sign it, I gave her my cherished worn copy instead. In it she wrote: “Flory Jagoda loves you.”
Observing her closest friends and family since Flory’s passing on January 29, I have seen with abundant clarity that Flory exhibited this love with every person she encountered. She was so filled with love – love of family, love of Ladino, love of heritage, and of course, love of music.
In the last few years, I had the opportunity to visit and sing with Flory in intimate gatherings with friends and neighbors in her daughter’s home. Even as her memory was failing, Flory never forgot the words or melodies to her songs. In my last visit, when Flory was 94, she was still commanding us all with her musical notes and infectious joy.
Flory embodies so much of both my personal and professional goals. By sharing her love of Ladino music, Flory has helped keep a tradition alive for generations to come. She is one of the reasons why, pregnant with my first child, I started writing my own songs in Ladino to pass on to my children. Flory understood that to transmit a culture on the brink of extinction, it needs to be shared joyfully with children. Hence the appeal of “Ocho Kandelikas.” Jewish and non-Jewish children (and adults!) all over the world have now been exposed to the joy of Ladino by singing her song.
I can only hope one day to leave this sort of legacy.
In the meantime, I am so blessed I got to meet Flory and let her know, in person, that her “L’amor” (“Love”) is the song I walked down the aisle to at my wedding. Or that I sing her “Chiko Ianiko” (“Little Ian”), which she wrote about cooking with her grandson, with my own children as I bake biscochos (cookies) with them.
And so, I will proudly continue to idolize Flory for all that she has done to inspire me and so many others by keeping the music and the love of our Sephardic heritage alive.