Among those giving Flory Jagoda a standing ovation in Montclair on April 17 were longtime fans of the 92-year-old Sephardi musician and newcomers just discovering her extraordinary contribution to world music and Jewish culture.
Around 200 people gathered at the Montclair Art Museum on Sunday afternoon to watch a documentary about Jagoda, Flory’s Flame, and hear the small, slender woman perform in person and then answer questions from the audience. The event was offered as part of the museum’s Learn and Create program, and was cohosted by the makers of the documentary, Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel.
Despite her age, Jagoda delivered a melodious rendition of an array of her songs, accompanied by her daughter, Betty Murphy; her singing partner and “keeper of the flame,” Susan Gaeta; and guitarist Howard Bass.
“The higher notes have changed a bit, but for the rest, her voice hasn’t changed in the 20 years we’ve been singing together,” Gaeta told NJJN.
The program showcased what Jagoda described as “all these journeys,” from her childhood in Bosnia — where she learned to play the accordion by ear — through wartime experiences as a refugee in Italy, to marrying an American serviceman and settling in the United States, and gradually building up a massive repertoire of original songs.
Murphy described to the audience how musicians from all over the world gathered at their home in northern Virginia, including greats like Theodore Bikel, to share music with her mother. But, Murphy said, it was only after Jagoda’s mother passed away that it became possible for Jagoda to begin singing in Ladino, because the pain of that association had been too much for the older woman.
While she is still writing, providing each new great-grandchild with a song of their own, Jagoda has based her creativity on her deep roots, maintained since before the family’s Inquisition-era expulsion from Spain. She draws on ancient tunes and remembered lyrics passed on to her by her nona, her grandmother, and enriched with fragments provided by others who share those traditions.
Jagoda, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, fills her songs with pathos, telling of love and faith and family celebrations — of Sukkot, and Purim, and Passover. “Maybe I put too much emotion into my songs, but I don’t understand doing it any other way,” she told the gathering.
Though she welcomed it when an audience member described her as “joyous,” she said much of her inspiration has come from the pain in the family’s history, and their suffering during the Holocaust. “There are so many things we went through, and the hurt stays there, so, so deep. It had to come out,” she said. In her family, that meant expressing it in song. “When I was young, we sat around and sang. When a new baby was born, he or she became part of our singing. The good and the bad went into our songs.”
She added with a smile, drawing a laugh from the audience, “I hope you enjoy it, this sadness that was a part of my life.” They had enjoyed just that, singing along with some of her best known numbers, including Adiyo Kerida, (Farewell Beloved), and La Kreasyon, (The Creation), and Este Es El Pan (This Is the Bread of Affliction).
“Flory is one of the most special people to ever walk this earth,” Friedland told the crowd. She and Fissel, her husband and partner, Montclair residents now dividing their time between New Jersey and Los Angeles, made the documentary under the auspices of their company JEMGLO, which specializes in making films about the survival of Jews and Jewish culture.
Fascinated by Jagoda’s story, Friedland and Fissel searched for a starting point, and then found the perfect showcase for her achievements — the 2012 tribute concert at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They interspersed segments from that performance with archival footage reflecting her childhood in Bosnia and experiences as a refugee in World War II with interviews with her, her family, and others who know her well. The documentary, which is being screened across the country, has helped boost Jagoda’s ongoing campaign to keep alive the music she holds so dear.