A tribute to Ladino music great Flory Jagoda

If you can’t put your soul in the song, don’t bother.

 Last week we paid our last respect to Flory Jagoda on a digital-age corona-proof Shiva. I can’t say this was a proper farewell. This pandemic has taken away so much of the warmth and human connection we share and even though we all wanted to give more, on this occasion it wasn’t possible for the mourners to adequately accept our offerings. 
Flory lived 97 years – a life full of twists and turns. A Bosnian Holocaust survivor of Sephardic heritage who immigrated to the United States and championed Ladino music and culture worldwide. Coming to America at the end of World War II, she wanted to leave it all behind and as her daughters Lori and Betty told me, became an all-American mother. Ladino was forbidden at home and there wasn’t any Sephardic food served during the holidays. The trauma of escaping the Nazis through Croatia and Italy made her leave her Sephardic heritage behind and she referred to Ladino as “the language that died with her family during the Holocaust.” 
It wasn’t until her parents came to the US at the end of the 1970s that Flory rediscovered an inner root that overflowed with her love for the rich Bosnian-Sephardic culture. It was as if she rose up to her role, being the only surviving member of the Altarac family and made it her life’s goal to make their culture renowned worldwide. She did it together with three of her children, traveling, in their words “like the von Trapp family.” And the music came naturally to them. They all sang, played guitar, lute and percussion and followed their mother wherever she went.
Living in the US and surrounded by a myriad of nationalities, she often felt at home, as everything that was Spanish was Jewish in her eyes. But still there was enough distance between her modern life and the past life she now compartmentalized to feel secure with her new identity. The Fourth of July became her favorite holiday and later she even refused a nationality offered to her by the Spanish government, claiming it would be disrespectful to her ancestors to accept it from the country that expelled them in the 15th century.
LADINO IS a language in a sense made by grandmothers and passed down from mother to daughter for more than 500 years. I learned it from my Nona (grandmother), just as Flory learned it from hers. All these beautiful Sephardic melodies were written by grandmothers and they have a special sentimental lilt to them. Each time I’d rehearse one of these songs with my trio and they wouldn’t remember its Ladino title, I would say, “Let’s play the grandma song” and they immediately got what I meant. 
One of my first memories is of me and my Nona, sitting at the kitchen table, peeling beans and singing “Los Guisados De La Berendjena,” a song about seven aubergine recipes. She hardly spoke Hebrew and my father forbade us to speak Ladino. Being one of the kids to escape Morocco and the pogroms of the “Kol Israel Haverim” schools, he became a purist, wanting to leave the Diaspora behind him and bury that feeling of home. 
But it seems you carry this love subconsciously in you wherever you go, because 15 years after my Nona passed away I visited Morocco for the first time and heard people on the street singing the same lullaby she used to sing to me when I was a little girl. All of a sudden those forgotten kitchen songs came alive and I started a six-year-long journey searching for songs and melodies that led me to release my traditional Ladino album Andalusian Brew. Sometimes all it takes is just a sound or a scent and you’re transported to a life you’ve already forgotten.
“If you can’t put your soul in the song, don’t bother singing” is what Flory’a Nona always told her. As a result, she believed her songs were a bit too emotional sometimes. But that’s who she was. If I were to look back at her life, I would summarize it in one word: Joy. She spread it wherever she went. And we were lucky enough to gaze at her sun for a while. 
Even though we never met in person, Flory always embodied for me the spirit of my Nona, who passed away when I was 12. Now I’ve lost them both. I bet all the angels up there are singing “Ocho Kandelikas” by now. 
The writer is an internationally acclaimed Ladino singer-songwriter. Her website is NaniMusic.com