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Keeper of the Flame

Whenever I would see Flory Jagoda, it was as if she had been waiting just for me, greeting me with her lovely smile and sparkling eyes. Often, she would say, “Here you are!” And now that she could kiss me–always on both cheeks–and hold my hand tightly, she seemed happy. I know I certainly was.

The truth is, Flory greeted pretty much everyone that same way, whether in her home or a concert hall amid hundreds of people there to see her perform. She was one of those few individuals with the remarkable ability to make each person feel truly special and important to her. 

Flory Jagoda, second from the left.

In return, the love and admiration people have for Flory became even more evident following her death at 97 years old on January 29–just before the beginning of Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. Some sort of synchronicity or irony there for this lifelong singer and musician, composer and recording artist who was also an entrancing storyteller and accomplished teacher, painter, cook and the absolute center of her family with her husband Harry and four children.

Since Flory’s passing, many obituaries, tributes, memorial programs and Zoom gatherings have told the story of her life and accomplishments, including a just-released, wonderful entry in the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, co-written before Flory’s death by her oldest daughter Betty Jagoda Murphy with Rachel Amado Bortnick. I am reminded over and over that her serene demeanor masked a powerhouse of energy and ideas, a gatherer of people, innovator and mentor for many women.

Flory Jagoda in Sarajevo with her protege, Susan Gaeta, and daughter Betty Jagoda Murphy.

I can’t exactly remember where or when I met Flory. It was probably 12 or 13 years ago. By then, she was in her 80s, still with incredible energy, and known to everyone as Nona (grandmother). She was also known as “The Keeper of the Flame” for her efforts to preserve and pass on Ladino music and Sephardic culture. For this, Flory had received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest award in the US for a traditional artist. Several CDs feature her lilting voice on both happy and haunting songs in Ladino, some hundreds of years old taught to Flory by her Nona, and some Flory’s own compositions such as the Hanukkah song she wrote in Ladino, Ocho Candelikas (Eight Little Candles), which has become one of the holiday’s most well-known and beloved songs.