Preserving a 500-year-old tradition
Flory Jagoda awarded National Heritage Fellowship
by Aaron Leibel
Flory Jagoda has devoted much of her life to preserving the Ladino songs of her family and the Sephardic community. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Falls Church resident intends to use a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship, which the National Endowment for the Arts announced last week, to make another CD of traditional Ladino music and songs she has written.
"These songs were passed from generation to generation orally," says Jagoda. They're in Ladino, she explains, which played a similar role that Yiddish did to the Ashkenazi community "as a mamaloshen." Ironically, she notes that both Ladino and Yiddish are based on the language of the "enemy" -- Spain for the former, Germany the latter.
Her preservation efforts are vital, Jagoda explains, because hers is the last generation to speak Ladino at home.
In recognizing her lifelong accomplishments, the National Endowment for the Arts noted her importance as a "carrier of a unique musical heritage and also as a composer and arranger of new Sephardic songs. ... Her performances are marked by musical beauty but also by her commitment to find meaning through affirmation of community in her personal experience."
Jagoda was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1923 into the very religious Altarac family. Her family had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and went to Turkey and Salonika (Greece) before arriving in Bosnia. She learned the ancient Ladino melodies from her grandmother as a child.
"The songs change somewhat according to where people lived," she explains. Thus, a Ladino song sung by a Jew from Turkey may have a Turkish sound, she says.
Jagoda, who was interned by the Italians on the island of Korcula in the Adriatic for two years during the war and lost all her family in the Holocaust, has lived in the Washington area since 1948.
This member of Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation has recorded three CDs (Kantikas Di Mi Nona - Songs of My Grandmother, which began as a record and also was a cassette; Memories of Sarajevo; and La Nona Kanta - The Grandmother Sings). She also has to her credit a songbook (The Flory Jagoda Songbook) and documentary film (The Key from Spain).
She continues to write songs, but they tend to be sadder now. "I have been looking back and they [her family] are all gone," she says. "This has to do with the stage of life you write songs. If you want to write songs about the past, sad tunes come out."
The Heritage Awards will be made in September.
This story was published in the WashingtonJewishWeek
on: Thursday, June 13, 2002