Published June 3, 2020

Born in 1923 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Flory Jagoda learned songs from her grandmother, or “Nona” as she calls her, who knew the musical traditions passed down through their Sephardic Jewish family. Sephardic Jews, who speak Judeo-Espanol or Ladino, settled in the Balkan region after they were forced into exile from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century.

Flory Jagoda and her Hohner harmonika
Flory Jagoda with her Student Hohner III accordion (photo courtesy Flory Jagoda)

When Flory was seventeen, her father, becoming aware of the impending danger to Jewish residents of Zagreb, told Flory she had to flee. He gave her a forged train ticket, with a non-Jewish name, and her accordion, which she called her “harmonica.” Flory says that she played the accordion to allay her fears, and the conductor on the train never even asked for her ticket. She credits that accordion with saving her life. Later she learned that 42 of her family members were killed, including her beloved Nona.

While living in a relocation camp in Italy, she met Harry Jagoda, a U.S. army officer. They married in 1946 and moved to Northern Virginia. To honor her Nona, Flory has made it her life’s mission to preserve the songs, music, and language of her Ladino family.

Flory is a gifted composer of new songs firmly rooted in the Sephardic tradition, and she has spent her life teaching, recording, and performing across the United States and internationally. In 2002, Flory received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor granted to a traditional artist in the United States. One of her most well known songs is the internationally recognized Hannakuh anthem, “Ocho Kandelikas.”

Listen to Flory sing in Ladino and talk about her nona’s songs at the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase:

Read the story of Flory’s restored accordion – Daily Progress, October 5, 2014 by David Mauer

Learning Experience

Virginia History in Song

What can songs teach us about history?