Flory Jagoda isn’t merely a culture guardian – keeping ancient Jewish Bosnian and Ladino songs and melodies alive – she’s a cultural transmitter. And at 91, the diminutive Sarajevo-born singer/songwriter/storyteller carries in her sinews and bones the legacy of Jews exiled from Spain, banished in 1492 by edict from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. During five centuries of wandering, much was lost, but much, too, was preserved: the Ladino language – a rich admixture of Judeo-Spanish that preserves ancient Castilian and is often said to sound Shakespearean for modern Spanish speakers.
A long-time Northern Virginia resident, Jagoda has been honored as a
National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. On Jan. 22, the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress screened Flory’s Flame, a compelling documentary that not only tells Jagoda’s story filled with both hardships and joys – from her beginnings in Sarajevo and the Bosnian countryside, where she learned the harmonika or accordion and Jewish songs from her grandmother, to an escape to Italy during the Holocaust, and her immigration to the United States as a war bride. Here in Northern Virginia she raised a family of four children, who all sang, and became the prime exponent of Ladino and Bosnian Jewish music, by both preserving ancient melodies and composing new ones. On Saturday, Flory’s Flame returns for a screening and evening with Jagoda at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center.
Filmmakers Curt Fissel and Ellen Friedland of Montclair, N.J., do more than hone in on Jagoda’s fascinating life story in their hour-long documentary. They weave in the history of the Spanish Jews in exile, deepening the importance of the film as a tool for preserving the many facets of Sephardic Jewish culture Jagoda nearly single-handedly brought to the forefront of Jewish music-making in this region and internationally.
At its Washington, D.C., premiere at the Library of Congress, Croatian Ambassador Josip Paro spoke eloquently about Jagoda’s lasting contributions to maintaining and promoting her multicultural musical legacy. “She is culturally Jewish but also Spanish, Bosnian and Croatian and her culture is also that of remembrance … Once in our history we were all immigrants … we were all persecuted. Flory’s story reminds us that we must never succumb to the collective voices [of hate] … then we are just one step from the Holocaust.”
Paro then added, “She has made it possible for the genius of multiple cultures to speak in one voice … she saved us from oblivion not to entertain us” but to uplift.
Film producer Friedland addressed Jagoda directly from the podium: “Flory, could you ever imagine as a teenager running from the Holocaust that 70 years hence you would be sitting in the Library of Congress being lauded by the Ambassador of Croatia?” Jagoda beamed from the second row, surrounded by family and friends.
The Q & A session after the screening ended, as any event with Jagoda, must: with a song. This one was a brief verse from her celebratory ditty called the “La La Song,” recorded in 2013 at the Library of Congress celebratory concert. Daughter Betty Jagoda Murphy laughed and sang along with the crowd.
Jagoda noted that this was her first time seeing the completed film since it premiered in Seattle late last year. “In my tough life which changed constantly … it was very emotional for me” to see the film, she said. The film also means that the world will now be able to know about her music and culture. In fact, Jagoda continues to teach students: “I want to share … I’m doing what my nona [grandmother] was doing, what she taught me” – passing on her traditions.
And Jagoda couldn’t recall her past and share her story without expressing her absolute love of her adopted country, the United States. “I fell in love with this country,” she said, when she came over as a war bride to Harry Jagoda, who died just 11 months ago. “This is where I started my life. Without this country I would not have survived.”
And now, Flory Jagoda’s songs and music will survive, too, along with her legacy and that of so many Sephardic Jews, dating back centuries, for it is told in Flory’s Flame.
Flory’s Flame, an evening celebrating Jagoda, Saturday, January 31, 7:30 p.m., Northern Virginia JCC, features the documentary screening, an appearance by Jagoda and a tasting of Sephardic cuisine. $29 premium, $25 adults, $21 NoVa JCC members, seniors (65+) and under 30. http://www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/190347