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Remembering Flory Jagoda

She had clear blue eyes.

She was my beloved mentor and my dear friend.

Flory Jagoda z”l, of blessed memory, a Jewish musician born in Vlasenica, Yugoslavia, known as the Keeper of the Flame and mother of the Balkan Ladino tradition, died January 29th just as Shabbat was arriving.

How did I find Nona Flory?

It was 2006, when I discovered the most beautiful blessing over the candles, written by Flory Jagoda, in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) on a Jewish website about ritual. As I searched for an accompanying melody, I found my way to Flory’s catalogue of music. Eric Stein also told me she would be one of the performers at the upcoming Ashkenaz festival that summer. I learned that biracha (blessing) and prepared a couple of her other tunes to sing for her. At the last minute, her husband Harry was ill and she had to cancel. So disappointed. But then, she was rescheduled for December 6th, 2008 at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. By that point, I had learned enough of the tunes to sing along through the concert. At the end of the evening, I went right up to her, introduced myself and professed my already deep admiration and desire to study with her. “Of course, baby,” she said accompanied by a huge embrace. “You’ll come and you’ll study.” And so began the gift of a lifetime.

For about four years, I travelled to Alexandria, Virginia a few times a year to study with Flory. We would sit, in her gorgeous music room with all the photos, performance posters, awards, costume pieces, Ladino books and instruments, for two days straight, learning music. She was fierce about the ornaments, about the ‘trill’ in the voice and about a steady harmony. She’d make me go back and go back again. I can hear her scolding me for pulling us off track by asking questions about her life. It was just so good to talk, to visit, to hear her. The best conversations happened during the walks along the Potomac. We talked often about love, about its importance in life, about the love of family, and mostly about romantic love. Flory had strong opinions on my love life urging me to make wise choices and nurture good loving. She also made the most delicious burek and the accompanying tomato and eggplant dishes as well as guiding me with tips for making chicken soup. Being with Harry, was also part of the treat. We’d sit at the kitchen table, eating and singing Yiddish songs and songs that Harry remembered from synagogue. This made him very happy although he seemed pretty upbeat and tickled about everything Flory.

It was an honour to sing a duet with Flory at the library of congress in 2013. The song was Abraham, written about the binding of Isaac. It was thrilling to sing this particular song with her in harmony as the opening has a somewhat cantorial nature and then the second voice follows soon after, adding texture and companionship in an intricate and disturbing story. I was the most recent addition to the Flory circle and I could feel some hesitancy about my presence from some of Flory’s nearest and dearest. This was painful but I can understand that they were protective of her. She was a treasure, their treasure. It does seem, from hearing all of the stories at the shiva gatherings, that one of the gifts that Flory had was the generosity and abundance of her loving. There was enough love to go around.

I got to duet with Nona.
My mom and dad drove all the way from London, Ontario to D.C.
Nona turned 90 and Harry turned 100.
It was a huge celebration and a highlight of my life.

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In 2016, Flory told me she had dementia. She was sad and scared as she shared about it. She began to travel to places in her past and then would catch herself. I am so sorry for that suffering. We continued to work together on visits which became timed with her birthday each year on December 21st. I continued up until our last visit in December 2018. The following year I couldn’t go because I wasn’t well and then… here we are.

Up until the end of our visits we were still singing together. Thank God for music. It is indeed one of the last remnants. So very intimate, staring into the eyes of a blue-eyed treasure, a survivor, a mentor, a friend, an elder, a guide and confidant and singing her song back to her.

It is a rare thing, in this time, to have a mentor. This is a practice often supported in folk traditions, also in the trades. What is a mentor? A teacher, a model, a trusted advisor. In this case, it is the practice of spending time. It is the art of connecting with an elder or someone of much greater experience and wisdom who has a profound specialty, a unique skill that only they can teach you. It is hours of shared stories and food, of celebration and loss and intimacy. How grateful am I for this remarkable gift!

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I want you to know about Flory. I want you to meet her too.
 Here are a number of ways you too can connect to her legacy:

TO WATCH
Documentary film Flory's Flame

TO READ
Virginia Folklife / Flame Keeper
The Forward / Bosnian Jews Remember
Obituary
 
TO LISTEN
NPR
all Flory's albums

RECENT INTERVIEWS BY ME
Shabbatify podcast of Romemu Brooklyn.
Interview is at 11:50 for 10 minutes.
CFPL London interview Begins just after 7:30.