Interview with American Sephardic Singer Flory Jagoda,[1]
Part I
Rosine Nussenblatt

Flory Jagoda, a Jewish folk singer, has devoted her career as a musician to transmit her Sephardic Judeo-Spanish culture from Bosnia through her music and songs. She has told the history of her family in several venues, including in her songbook entitled: The Flory Jagoda Songbook: Memories of Sarajevo (1996). Here, she has recreated for us the life of her family in Vlasenica, a picturesque Bosnian mountain village where she grew up.

This interview was very informal, being conducted at Flory Jagoda’s apartment, in Arlington, Virginia, on February 19, 2010, around a cup of coffee and delicious homemade Sephardic delicacies, a real Sephardic vijita [visit].

Vijitas de Alhad [Sunday Visits]

Thank you very much, Flory, for inviting us, and for allowing us to ‘invade’ your home and record this interview. Kerida Flory, you are the heart and soul of our group, Vijitas de Alhad. Every time we meet, you regale us with what are supposed to be one or two songs, but they become four or five songs very easily, because everybody is having such a good time. And we study, we do some reading and dialogues in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and we eat with great gusto the wonderful foods of the old country of the Sephardim. So our first question is: how did this group come about, and to whom do we owe this idea?

Well, to be very, very sentimental about the whole thing, with me it was plain nostalgia. I did not meet too many people who spoke Ladino. I wrote Ladino songs, but that was all based on my experience and memories.

What do you remember of how the group came about?

All I know is that people came to my house. They came to my house, they came the next time, and then the group started developing and adding more names, you see. But my main beginning, the mental beginning, was nostalgia. Spending time with somebody that I have something in common with, something that we can remember together.

And you wanted it to be something alive, not recordings, not solos or dialogues?

I have been giving concerts since I came to America, in 1946, right; so anywhere I went, and I talked to a Jewish audience, they knew nothing about what I was talking about, nothing. David Shneyer [a rabbi-cantor in the Washington DC area] soon asked me to do my first workshop at the Jewish Folk Arts Society at American University [in Washington DC] and then, I met some Hillel young men [Hillel is a Jewish campus organization]. I was supposed to give a workshop--and this is funny--because I was studying English and workshop meant work and a shop; I did not know. I did not put it together and I thought, Well, I would love to work in your shop! I came home and I thought, I am going to meet American performers! I was dying to meet American musicians, Jewish Folk Arts Society! It is a perfect place to get in and to get to know everybody. So here Shneyer said: “You can’t be, you can’t be in a workshop,” and we finally talked about my songs. My first sentence was: “I want to share my songs from my country, Jewish songs,” and I hear a young man in the back and it is still in my ears: “What the hell is that?” It was in the sixties. I stood there. It was new, it was different, I was learning all the time. But this is how little they knew about me! They wanted me to do a program for Pesach, so I started the song “Pan del afrysion” [2] [The bread of suffering refers to the matza eaten at Passover], and the program chairman said: “Do you not know any of our songs?” I said: “These are our songs, Jewish songs.” He answered: “No, our songs, our Jewish songs.” This is the way it was; take it as normal, the system the way it was. So my desire grew, more and more, to sing and teach them and this how it developed. Organizations, students and teaching developed and grew, to where we are now. We are [now] comfortable, and I am very comfortable. Before, I was timid about it, scared most of the time, scared. “Don’t tell you are Jewish.” Why? I was scared; we grew up scared because it was close to the war. Everything was always being scared. Yes.

Memories of Jewish life in Yugoslavia before World War II

But you had a very warm, close Jewish community surrounding you in Yugoslavia . . . .

Among us, it was like a ghetto.

Who were your neighbors?

My neighbors were Muslims and Greek Orthodox; we shared a neighborhood. We had a lot in common with Muslims. Fridays together, we were there early on Fridays getting ready for Shabbat. We did not eat pork, and they did not eat pork. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews living together.

Was it dangerous for you as a child to walk in the village?

No, no, it was not.

Did you go to a village school?

I went to a village school. The only problem is that our nonas (grandmothers), these nonas, were so immersed in the past, from generation to generation, that my mother said there must be something else in this world: “I want to get out of here.”

Your mother was a rebel, right?

My mother was a rebel; she finally talked my grandfather into letting her go to Sarajevo. My tiya Streya [Aunt Streya] lived there. He said to her: “Okay, you can go; stay with her a week. I want you back at our place once a week.” Going from Vlasenica, this village, to Sarajevo the big city! My mother was dying for a big city.

Did you get a religious education?

From Nona, everything was from the home. There was no place to go to study. My dad, the fathers, taught the sons Hebrew, and later they did bring a man; I think one was from Salonika to teach the boys, but it was mostly the fathers who taught Hebrew, mostly they did not bother too much. The women spoke onlyLadino. You had schools, I went to a Serbo-Croatian school where we spoke and learned all the folk songs. We had very good friends. 

Did your mother go to school as well?

She went to school, yes, elementary school, in the village, no high school.

Did la Nona know how to write in ‘solitreo’? [cursive Judeo-Spanish script]

Did she know how to write in solitreo? Yes, solitreo, that was in her books, that was what she was writing and in the business, in the books of my grandfather, which were downstairs. We lived upstairs and the business was downstairs and the nona would say: “Tray un poko de farina” [Go get a little bit of flour].She would say: “Go down, get this and this and this.” It was all going up and down to the store. When I would come home from school I would sort of be a little embarrassed like kids are, you know, with a foreign grandmother [in front of] friends or anybody’s sister. I would say: “Would you speak to them a little bit.” She knew a little bit of Serbo-Croatian. I said: “They don’t understand; they think you are speaking about them.” She would look at me in a very serious way. “Sos djudya. Aya avlar en djudyo” [You are Jewish, you should speak in Jewish]. That was it; you could not argue withNona. On one side she was a very strict woman, I could not believe it, and on the other side, she was this soft and wonderful woman, a midwife. She believed in the strength of songs and when the labor pains came, she sang to the woman. She believed the song did something to the woman. They all had babies at home, as you know.

Your grandmother, where was she born?

In another little tiny town, but they [the Jewish community] originally came to Sarajevo in the late 15th century. They all came to Sarajevo from Salonika and from Turkey. They were looking for new places. Later they came from Split, Dubrovnik, the Venetian Republic and the Dalmatian coast. In fact they were all merchants mostly, traveling from the Dalmatian coast up to Skopje, which is close to Greece. They would go through Sarajevo and Sarajevo had a wonderful old Sephardic community; they called it the Chika Yerushalayim (Little Jerusalem). They traveled, they looked for something better, but they were all mostly merchants. They came from Spain [in the 15th century] as merchants.

What did they sell in the village?

Anything that would go within a cart: from a comb, to stockings, to pieces of silk to a ribbon, anything that you could put in boxes. The whole carriage was full of boxes, pins, hairpins and ribbons, threads, little stuff that the woman would want. When the women would hear him come [the merchant] they would all run up and buy things they needed for the house, like when you go to a five cents store or a dollar store, that kind of buying.

It was a very important service that they performed.

A very important service, very, because you could buy what you needed such as scissors, you know, little things that you need around the house.

Were there only people coming with a cart?

No, no, they had some stores later. In fact, the Altarac family, they all had little stores, but the kind of store where you can go and buy eggs or you can buy fabric, silk, fabric to sew a dress, or shoes or a hat, a general store. Most lived upstairs or in the back of the store.

Did you eat kosher?

Very kosher, very kosher! One of the brothers of my mother, Aaron, he was, what do you call it?

‘Shochet’? [Ritual Slaughterer]

Shochet, we had another word, I want to get to another word.

‘Mashgiah’?[supervisor for food]

Well, if he had come to the Vijitas de Alhad, he would have killed the lamb; he was the one who killed the lamb.

Oh! We must do that next time! [laughter]

Was your family known as a family of musicians?

Everybody played because they were musicians, all of them--a very unique, very talented family. Even to the point that they did not even have private [music] lessons.

Yes, you just absorbed it as you grew up.

We sang it, the harmony caught right away.

Do you know where this musical tradition comes from, way, way back?

It traveled back because I know that my nona would say that her sister used to sing this song, her brother used to play this song, it traveled, it traveled. . . .

Could you tell us more about your mother?

My mother married and divorced. She came back with me to Vlasenica [from Sarajevo].

First, they got her a little house, not even to live with the family because it was embarrassing, you see, so she was very lonely. Then my grandfather, Nono, got in touch with the kazamenteros [matchmakers] because those were the ones who used to get couples together and they would make big parties. They would come to your village and they were in touch with the kazamenteros of the village and they would arrange a party. And the kids were all excited because they were going to meet, you know, they were going to meet girls and boys. And the family was excited, first going to a hotel, and they were already planning, ‘this one will look good with this one, that one’. It was a lot of fun.

Other kazamenteros would come along. Now, they would sometimes bring couples from another village. They would advertise to each other: “This is where we are meeting and we are going to have a party.” And all the little communities would come to Vlasenica. So it was something you looked forward to. What you are going to wear, you know, everybody wore new clothes. The kids definitely always came, always running around, you know, and having a good time. Something that they are excluded from today you know.

Now they meet on the Internet.

Yes, but let us go back to my mother’s story. So we came to these kazamenteros, the kazamentero from Vlasenica told my nonothat there was a young man who was, I mean, also divorced. It had to match [two divorced persons] and he brought in this Michael Kabilio. It worked right away because Michael knew that she wanted to get out of Vlasenica.

And where did they live?

Zagreb, that’s a big city, a modern city. She did fit in, she did fit in beautifully.  

So they did not marry out of love. They married out of an arrangement with the kazamentero.

Yes, mostly, that’s how the marriages were done. But the parents sometimes used to do their own arrangement you know, amongst themselves: “I have a daughter and how much do you have?” And they would tell their child, a daughter: “I have a young man; he is going to come tonight and you can meet him.” Between the two families, the arrangements were made too. In these cases, thekazamentero lost his twenty percent, but that was part of the business.

When you were a child and you could see around you the ‘tiyas’[aunts] getting married, how old were the young women, fourteen?

Well about sixteen, seventeen, not fourteen. You were an old maid at 25; you were muy vyeja! [very old].

And the young men were about the same age?

They were of the same age or maybe a year or two older, but an older man could marry a very young girl, we know that.

Do you remember the weddings in Vlasenica?

The only thing I remember about weddings is that it was a lot of fun and I saw all my friends dressed in black leather shoes and embroidered knee socks. While they were singing and dancing, we could go outside and play around in the garden.

Did you have a synagogue and a rabbi?

We had a synagogue with a rabbi. The synagogue was under the mountain in a little tiny house. A very informal one room [synagogue], and the chairs in the back were for the nonas.  And the man (the shamash) walked around in the synagogue. He had a melody, I wish I would remember that melody in Ladino: “Give us two, three, four, five dinars.” He was collecting to read the Torah.

Do you remember the traditions for getting married, such as the engagement?

It was at home all the time, among women, mostly. Weeks, even months before the wedding, women would come in the evening, and those were good times, to embroider.

Oh, for the dowry?

Sure, embroider the pillow cases, the tablecloths, and those were happy times, a lot of funny stories about when you get married: “Don’t forget that, don’t do this.” And it was a lot of fun. The kids would get out of the room because they [the adult women] wanted to talk about sex too.

What happened when someone was very sick? Did they get special prayers? And where?

All kinds of prayers! Where? That I don’t know, I don’t remember, but prayers, yes. Light a candle? Yes, a must, and that’s why I wrote the song “Kandela de la Mujer] [the Woman’s Candle] because nothing was without a candle. Is it going to rain or snow? Light a candle! You have problems at home with la nuera [daughter-in-law]? Light a candle! What is wrong with her? You know that if a candle is lit, something is wrong in the family. They all lived together. They believed that the light, the flame of the candle would bring you closer to el dyo bendicho [G-d].

Was it like a prayer?

Like a prayer, you could not pray without la kandela that’s what I wrote in my song, the “La Biraha de la Mujer”[Woman’s Prayer].

If we talk about other stages of life, what happened when someone died?

Everything was at home.

Did you cover the mirrors?

Definitely. Definitely covered the mirrors.

I remember seeing a video. In some communities people would sort of enact death: they would lie on the floor and wear the shroud and turn it in a sort of party. I have only seen this in a video.

The only thing that I remember is la mortajaLa mortaja is a shroud. It was also a party (to celebrate the making of the shroud), a happy party with lots of singing, dancing, food and the men would lay on the floor. Everything for laughing, like a joke: the wife would sew the shroud and the husband would try it on. I do a song about la mortaja on stage, “Kurtar la Mortaja” [To Prepare the Shroud]. It is very interesting and full of jokes: “Oh! It is too tight! Open it up a little bit! Don’t get fat!” Everything was for jokes, but the reality was that you would die one day.

So when did you have such a party--as an adult?

Any time. Any time, but naturally you would celebrate la mortaja when you were in your fifties, you know, maybe late forties. We kids, we would like the mortaja parties, but the idea was that you were going to die. Some of my songs are liturgical poems such as “La Kapara”[Sacrifice for Atonement]. From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur it was la semana de la tristessa [the week of sadness]; it was a bit of sadness, la semana de la tristessa, and you would be making plans looking at the calendar: “Oh no puedo, no puedo; es la semana de la tristessa, no puedo venir.” [Oh, I cannot, I cannot; it is the week of sadness, I cannot come.] Everything was semana de la tristessa.

It is realism, nothing flowery or beautiful. Hey, you are going to end up in that hole and you will become worms. And the women would weep and cry, and weep and cry, on Yom Kippur because, I am telling you, it was a very realistic thing. This was all life itself, which they knew from living, not reading.

So, the women, they learned the prayers by heart, were they able to read Hebrew?

No Hebrew, Ladino yes.

They had translations, transliterations?

They had some books later on that were Ladino/Serbo-Croatian, they had that. No Hebrew, Hebrew was just for men, women were not even interested. 

Did women go to synagogue?

On holidays, not on Shabbat! I remember the Shabbat. They would go to temple, the men. The nona would send one of the grandsons: “Go and see if they are coming.” They would run back: “Vyenen, vyenen!” [They are coming, coming!]. She would run and put everything on the table. Such excitement, such excitement! Life itself, the Shabbat!

We gain a lot in life, but we are missing a lot.

My favorite song [is] the one about the ‘tiyas’[aunts].

Connected to the song, I got an email from a woman I had never met before. She wrote: “We are six women living in South Arlington [Virginia]; we love your songs and we would like to know if you would teach us some. We would like to sing.” So I said: “I don’t teach anymore, but come over. I will teach you a song, you learn one, go and practice. Come back, I teach you another one.” They were there the next day, tiyas-looking, tiyas-looking.

They already know eight songs. They call themselves Tiyas. They adopted the names la tiya Luna, la tiya Mazalta, la tiya Estreya. . . . They sure come religiously.

I wish we could invite them to a Vijita.

I am going to invite them to the next Vijita, that they should sing “Buena semana” [Good Week] and “Pessah a la Mano”[Passover at Hand]. They know eight songs.

Listening to them at this Vijita, we will feel bad that we are not such good learners.

Listen, sweetheart, some people just don’t sing. That’s all. Some people just don’t sing. Some people are timid about singing. At theVijitas, I love the people because I have a feeling of family. When you lose everybody, I mean everybody [in your family], and think about the nona seeing all her kids dropping dead, you relive that all your life. Thank G-d that I am a very upbeat person; I let the happiness take over the sadness. Thank G-d, and thank G-d for this man [Flory Jagoda’s husband]. I think that I am not a G-dly person unfortunately, but I would say G-d sent him as G-d sent the tiyas to me, now seven tiyas coming, you know. 

But you were blessed with children.

Yes, good children! Daughters and granddaughters!

Vlasenica after World War II

What happened when you wanted to find out more about the fate of your extended family in Vlasenica during World War II?

When that farmer said: “That’s where your whole family is, in that hole!” I looked up and I said, nothing there, I lost it, I lost it completely.

How did the farmer know?

He lived there.

Was he alive at the time?

He said that he bought this farm in 1956 and one day the dogs and pigs came to the door; it had been raining for a whole week and a half and everything was soaked and they had human bones in their mouth. So he said: “I followed them down to where that little ravine is. They [ had] brought this bunch of people, they put them in a barn, they shot them to death; threw them off, threw them down [into the ravine].” I don’t want to mention who did the killing; it is passé, it is finished. I am very much against hate. If you can save your children from that feeling of hate, you have done a mitzvah [a good deed].

How do you feel when you go back to Bosnia?

I don’t go back to Bosnia. I just went to give concerts; the music heals me. Just to go on a vacation, no way. I went once to see what happened to my family, I could not live anymore and again here comes this angel Harry [Flory Jagoda’s husband]. He said: “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Because he knew: “Get this out of this woman’s mind; let’s help her.” So we went, the two of us. That was in 1987 or 1988, something like that.

Did the people in the village know?

Nobody knew anything, and nobody remembered anything. All these Jewish homes, not one article that I could have bought; I would have given anything to get a menorah [candelabrum used during the Chanukah holiday]. They all had menorahs; they all had Kiddush cups (cups used to recite a blessing over the wine). Where is all that? Nobody knows.

When you went back, were there people that you knew?

I had a cousin, Cousin Berta. Her daddy Elazar and my mother were brother and sister. They were very close. So Berta, it is another big, old story again. Berta lives here now. She has been a literature professor in America and at Sarajevo University. She was very close to her daddy. Her daddy came to that farm, to that barn and that night, he broke one of the boards and sneaked out.

Were they imprisoned in there or were they hiding? 

Well, they put them there overnight, the next day they killed them. So Elazar is the only one who was left alive. The story, the horrible story is, he walked the next day, walked around like a lunatic, then he went out of his mind. He joined the partisans and one of the women partisans, Danica, saved him, mentally. She took care of him. They went back to Vlasenica; her husband was killed. So he was very close to her. He married Danica. He was the first who married a gentile. He went to Israel to die. He is buried outside of Jerusalem and the only thing that’s left is this little Berta. I heard, as I never met Danica, I heard that she was the most wonderful, warm human being, who really took care of him.

You whole family had a strong Jewish identity.

Very strong!

[End of Part I]

[1] Flory Jagoda came to America as a bride in 1946 from Bosnia. She has recorded “Kantikas de mi Nona,” “Memories of Sarajevo,” “La Nona Kanta,” and “Arvoliko: The Little Tree,” among other recordings. In 2002 she received a Lifetime Honor from the National Heritage Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts. Perhaps Flory’s best-known piece is the Chanukah song, “Ocho Kandelikas,” which is one of her own compositions, but so well-known now that it is often thought to be a folksong. She is also the subject of a film, The Key from Spain, underwritten by the Maurice Amado Foundation. Flory continues to teach, write, and perform concerts, and is the driving force behind Vijitas de Alhad.

[2] The transliteration of Ladino in this interview is according to Flory Jagoda, as she uses her own system for spelling her Bosnian dialect of Ladino/Judeo-Spanish.


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