Updated: Feb. 3, 10 a.m.
Flory Jagoda, a Ladino and Sephardic music icon, Holocaust survivor and long-time Northern Virginia resident, died Jan. 29 at at an assisted living facility in Alexandria. She was 97.
The Sarajevo-born singer, songwriter and storyteller was known as “The Keeper of The Flame” for her efforts in keeping ancient Jewish Bosnian and Ladino songs and melodies alive.
These efforts led Jagoda to be honored as a national heritage fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015.
Jagoda was born into a musical family in Bosnia where she grew up speaking Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish. Her grandmother taught her songs and she became fluent on guitar, accordion and other Bosnian instruments. Jagoda was passionate about passing down the traditions she learned from her grandmother.
“I want to share … I’m doing what my nona [grandmother] was doing, what she taught me,” Jogoda said at a 2015 screening of a documentary about her life at the Library of Congress.
In an interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jagoda recalled how her childhood music teacher declined to teach her after the Germans arrived and forced the Jews to wear identifying yellow badges adorned with a “z.” When she arrived at her teacher’s home wearing the badge, the teacher told her she had to go away.
“And that was tough, you know, uh, that was tough,” Jagoda said in a video on the museum website. “And I just turned around, and me and my harmonica, my friend, just walked home brokenhearted, just brokenhearted.”
At the start of World War II, Jagoda’s family fled Bosnia to a refugee camp in Italy. As a refugee in Italy, Jagoda met an American soldier, Harry Jagoda, and they married in 1945.
They moved to the United States the next year, where they settled in Northern Virginia for the rest of their lives.
While her four children were growing up, Jagoda was a music teacher and painter. She released four albums throughout her life which celebrated family, tradition and culture. Her most famous song, the Chanukah composition “Ocho Kandelikas,” has become acclaimed all over the world and been covered by many artists.
Jagoda was also a featured concert performer and Sephardic music lecturer, dedicating her life to being a cultural transmitter. She was a founder of the Jewish Folk Arts Society and Las Vijitas de Alhad, a monthly gathering of descendants of Sephardic Jews of the Old Ottoman Empire interested in speaking Ladino and preserving its traditions.
In 2015, the Library of Congress screened “Flory’s Flame,” a documentary that told the story of Flory Jagoda’s life. At the premiere, Croatian Ambassador Josip Paro spoke about the legacy of Jagoda saying, “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. 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.
Jagoda is predeceased by her husband of 69 years, Harry, and their son Elliot. She is survived by her daughters, Betty Jagoda Murphy and Lori Jagoda Lowell, and her son Andy Jagoda. She is also survived by her grandchildren, Josh Murphy, Ian Lowell, Ariel Lowell, Alec Lowell, Aaron Jagoda and Nathan Jagoda; and her great-grandchildren, Liam and Flory Murphy, Cooper Lowell and Ellis Jagoda.
Donations can be made to: Flory Jagoda Sephardic Music Fund Virginia Humanities, 145 Ednam Dr., Charlottesville, VA 22903 Or: virginiafolklife.org/give/flory-jagoda-sephardic-music-fund