Sephardic songstress carries her tune to Seattle

If you’ve ever heard the Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”) you’re familiar with Flory Jagoda’s music. Next week, the 90-year-old Sephardic songstress will visit Seattle to perform that and other songs — some her own, and some passed down from generation to generation among Sephardim. All of the songs are sung in Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, the spoken and written language of Jews with Spanish origins.

With the third largest Sephardic community in the United States, Seattle is the perfect place for Jagoda to showcase her music. Pamela Lavitt, director of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and cultural arts for the Stroum Jewish Community Center, has partnered with the University of Washington’s Sephardic Studies program to organize the event. She acknowledges that Jagoda, who is originally from Sarajevo, may seem out of place at first in a community that is largely from Turkey and Rhodes.

“One of our jobs is to have something for everyone in our community,” Lavitt explained. “The Ladino that she sings [is universal]. We want to celebrate the life and the continuing life of this music.”

The world premiere of “Flory’s Flame,” a documentary about Jagoda’s life, will screen on Saturday night, December 6, as part of the J’s growing cultural arts scene. The film and presentation by Jagoda come two days after the second annual International Ladino Day, which takes place Thursday, December 4 at the University of Washington.

Lavitt’s partnership with Prof. Devin Naar, who chairs the Sephardic Studies Program at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the UW, and Molly FitzMorris, a Ph.D. student in linguistics, follows the success of the first International Ladino Day last December. The three saw an opportunity to bring in a world-renowned performer of Sephardic songs to culminate International Ladino Day this year. Jagoda, they all felt, was a natural choice.

Jagoda, who has always written her music with children in mind, will be pleased with this year’s International Ladino Day line-up. In addition to a number of performers who are returning from last year’s celebration, the program will also feature youth performers ranging in age from elementary school students to students at the university level.

Jagoda’s efforts to preserve and pass on Sephardic culture are a lifetime effort for her. She grew up in a musical family in Sarajevo, where her grandmother taught her Sephardic songs that dated back generations. During World War II, she escaped Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia with her family to Italy, where she met American Sergeant Harry Jagoda. They married and eventually settled in the United States, but Jagoda never lost her strong sense of Sephardic identity.

“The mission of a Sephardic woman was to teach the women of the family Judeo-Spanish and to sing,” Jagoda said, explaining why she continued to write and perform music after emigrating from Europe. “That was a way of life, and I knew I had the desire to continue and teach other people.”

In 2002, Jagoda was formally recognized by the National Heritage Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts and was awarded a Lifetime Honor — the highest award bestowed upon artists by the government. Though she no longer records new music, she continues to perform her songs all over the country in hopes that she will inspire Sephardic communities to continue their musical traditions.

If you go: The Second International Ladino Day takes place Thursday, December 4, at 7 p.m. at UW Kane Hall, room 130. Flory Jagoda will perform at the Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island, on Saturday, December 6 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the culminating celebrations surrounding International Ladino Day. Her performance will open with a screening of “Flory’s Flame,” a documentary about her life. For more information and to buy advance tickets, visit sjcc.org/cultural-arts/music/florys-flame-and-legacy. For more information about Ladino Day and to reserve tickets, visit jewishstudies.washington.edu.

This piece originally appeared on The Jewish Sound.

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