By Jon Lohman
We were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Flory Jagoda, master Sephardic Jewish singer, musician and composer, on January 29th, at the age of 97. Our grief is tempered by a flood of sweet memories and our immeasurable gratitude for all her gifts to the world, and the joy of recalling a life so masterfully lived. Fittingly, she passed in the hours preceding Shabbat Shirah, a special Sabbath in the Jewish faith known as “The Sabbath of Song,” commemorating the jubilant singing of the Israelite women after their successful journey through the parted Red Sea.
Flory’s importance as both an artist and preserver of Sephardic music and of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language the Sephardi brought to new lands and cultures after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, cannot be overstated. In a career exceeding five decades, Flory became one of the world’s most recognized Jewish performing artists, singing not only the traditional Yugoslavian and Sephardic folk songs she first learned from her beloved Nona (grandmother), but her own compositions depicting life in the close-knit Sephardic community of her childhood before it was tragically destroyed in World War II. Over the course of her career Flory delighted audiences at festivals and concert halls across the globe, produced five critically acclaimed recordings, was the subject of several books and documentaries and received countless awards and honors including the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the National Endowment for the Arts bestows upon a traditional artist. Her songs are sung and beloved throughout the world, and her joyous composition “Ocho Kandalikas” (“Eight Candles”) has become a global Hanukkah anthem.
“The music must continue,” Flory often said, and she dedicated her life to ensuring that it would. Flory became known as “The Keeper of the Flame” of Sephardic music, language, and culture, and she tended to that fire with great passion and care, leaving it not a flickering ember but one that continues to burn vibrantly, evidenced by the vast number of students she has mentored, minds she has opened, and hearts she has touched.
Flory was foremost a teacher at heart, and this, among her many gifts, first brought us together and forged the path for our future work and friendship. I met Flory for the first time in Washington D.C., at the National Heritage Fellowship awards ceremony, admittedly nervous about meeting a prodigious artist who had lived a life of such magnitude. Seeing her for the first time took me aback. Stunningly beautiful at age 80 with a smile that could light any room, she was barely five feet tall, and I wondered how so much force could be contained in such a tiny frame. “Will you look at this guy!” she said with her beautiful Bosnian accent, reaching out for a hug. Soon afterward, assembling the inaugural class of master artists for our newly formed Folklife Apprenticeship Program, I called Flory first.
Flory had long welcomed a constant stream of students to her door—seekers from far and wide who came not only for the opportunity to sing with their idol but to bask in her presence, hear her stories, and—if they were really lucky—uncover the secret to Flory’s acrobatic yet soulful vocal trills, or at the very least the directions to the Fountain of Youth. Outstanding among her pupils at the time was a talented young Ashkenazi Jewish singer who lived nearby, Susan Gaeta. “I have a beautiful student right now who can really sing,” Flory told me. “She gives me great harmony.”
I witnessed Flory and Susan sing together for the first time at Flory’s lovely home in Falls Church, in her music room with large open windows facing out to the lake. We have visited more than 150 apprenticeship teams since the creation of the Folklife Apprenticeship Program, but to me that first group of visits will always possess a unique magic, and many planted the seeds of some of my most enduring work and deepest and most lasting friendships, Flory and Susan’s chief among them. My strongest memory of that afternoon is the way Flory’s gaze remained so closely fixed on Susan as they played, gleaming through eyeglasses perched at the perfect teacherly angle upon her nose (this is the only memory I have of Flory ever wearing glasses, and I have come to think she did it largely for effect). Flory interrupted their singing repeatedly throughout the lesson, pointing out a pitch not quite reached here, a breath misplaced there. Each Ladino word needed to be pronounced precisely, and in a Yugoslavian accent no less.
Despite all the starting and stopping, there was an underlying sense of ease with which their voices danced together. Flory clearly knew it, and saw in Susan not only a prize student but her future performing partner. Flory’s perfectionism was both a teaching style and an expression of her very core, and in Susan she had found the perfect apprenticita. Susan gracefully welcomed every direction, bolstered perhaps by her own knowledge that this Sephardic music somehow already lived inside of her, and she had a knack for learning Flory’s lessons with almost uncanny speed and permanence. The two were soon performing as a duo and continued to do so through the remainder of Flory’s career. Often accompanied by her favorite instrumentalist Howard Bass, the two performed for audiences large and small throughout the U.S. and abroad. After Flory retired from performing in 2017, Susan continued to visit Flory nearly every week, and after the pandemic began she faithfully and regularly sung to her on Zoom until her final days.
Flory took countless other musicians under her wing in addition to Susan, most notably her own children who would go on to join her on many stages and recordings. “Oh, you were going to sing in our house,” her daughter Betty says with a laugh, “it wasn’t a choice.” Flory also mentored a second apprentice through the Virginia Folklife program, the immensely talented Toronto-based vocalist Aviva Chernick in 2014.
Flory’s teachings extended to her public performances, delivered in a seamless weave of story and song. To attend a Flory Jagoda performance was to attend a kind of master class on the riches of Sephardic music, history, and culture. The fate of Judaic neighborhoods such as the one in which Flory grew up is inextricably tied to one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, but Flory never made that her focus. While she was ultimately able to confront and process her own traumatic memories through song later in her career, the defining quality of her music and of her life was a profound sense of joy. Her concerts were a love letter to Vlasenica, the tiny Bosnian village of her youth. Through words and song Flory painted a vivid picture of a place where the birth of a child was cause for a neighborhood-wide celebration, where children were too excited to sleep on the nights before one of the many beloved holidays that marked their calendar of days, where a grandmother’s song was considered the most precious gift imaginable, and where people danced without inhibition and loved with abandon.
I will forever cherish being transported to this idyllic remembered place in my many visits to Flory in the apartment she and her husband Harry moved to in Alexandria—a magical realm of its own perched high above the shores of the Potomac. I would ride the elevator to the fifth floor, knock on the door marked 505, and be greeted by that little lady with the huge smile: “Well, take a look at this guy!” We shared stories over tea and borek, a traditional Turkish-Yugoslavian pastry, and I often stole away to wander about the apartment, which was adorned with objects of delicate beauty amassed over a lifetime. The walls were covered with dozens of musical instruments, concert posters, and beautiful works of art, many painted by Flory herself. There were photographs of Flory as a young girl, posing proudly with her treasured harmonika (accordion) that she would later play for four hours without stopping to avoid having to speak to guards on the train that would provide her escape from Zagreb alone, at the age of fourteen. There was another with her beloved Harry on their wedding day in Italy a number of years later, Flory radiant in the dress she had constructed from a U.S. Army parachute. There were always sweet smells from the kitchen, excited talk and meticulous planning for the next performance, plenty of laughter and sometimes tears. And there was music. Always the music.
Flory was more than a friend to the Virginia Folklife Program and a regular participant in our activities over the years; she was our Nona, and we will miss her dearly.
Flory Jagoda with Susan Gaeta and Howard Bass perform “Ocho Kandelikas” at the Richmond Folk Festival in 2012.
Jon Lohman is the Director of the Center for Cultural Vibrancy and former Director of the Virginia Folklife Program.