Flory Jagoda: The Celebration Concert

We are surrounded by music in our daily lives, but seldom are we transformed by its power.  The perfect combination of pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, and texture – collectively infused with an all-encompassing breath of soul – is a rare occurrence. Such truly beautiful music has unrivaled power that causes the heart to soar, the mind to refresh, and the spirit to awaken in love.  It is ethereal, piercing, transformative, universal.  Its presence emanates like rays of sun touching our essence.

Getting swept up in one of these transcendent moments is a story worthwhile to share, and so I write today about the 90th birthday Celebration Concert of legendary musician Flory Jagoda that was held within the prestigious walls of the United States Library of Congress this past Saturday night. Long in the planning stage, the concert featured Flory and 25 others, including family members, colleagues, apprentices and students. Over decades of time, these associates have learned the songs that Flory has composed, taught and sung in her native Judeo-Spanish and Bosnian languages, all reflective of the Sephardic world of her childhood and of the generations that preceded her. A few days ago each of these very talented musicians honored their mentor by surrounding her on stage and chiming in with their voices and instruments –guitars, mandolins, violins, violas, cellos, bass, bongos, and bells –flawlessly weaving together melodies to which she gave life. The concert was presented under the auspices of the Homegrown Concert Series at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.


Flory has long been known as “keeper of the flame” for preserving, perpetuating, and expanding Sephardic Jewish cultural tradition through music. She was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1923, and she was raised singing melodies taught to her by her Nona (grandmother) and other family members. A recipient of the rarely bestowed National Heritage Fellowship presented by the National Endowment for the Arts, Flory has also served as a Master Artist in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VfH). She has performed throughout the U.S. and internationally. Her solo voice, still miraculously close to perfection even at the age of 90, opened the sold-out auditorium housing almost 500 fans.  She sang the second song with her granddaughter Ariel Lowell, a 21-year old musician who inherited Flory’s complex and beautiful musical voice and is currently recording her first album. Their duet was followed by a few selections by Flory, Ariel, and three of Flory’s children – Betty Murphy, Elliot Jagoda, and Lori Lowell, Ariel’s mom. Halfway through their second song together, the side curtains of the stage opened and Flory’s colleagues, apprentices and students joined the Jagoda family’s chorus.

The songs that followed told stories that came from places and experiences that have defined Flory’s life. With a Jewish Sephardic family history that stretched back to Spain until the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century, then moved onto Turkey and spread out from there, Flory spent her early years living with her Nona, near her extended family in a small village in Bosnia called Vlasenica. She subsequently moved with her parents to Zagreb, Croatia. When World War II broke out and the Jews were forced to wear armbands with yellow stars, her parents sought refuge. They sent her ahead by herself to Split, Croatia, overcoming her 14-year old fears en route by playing her accordion in the train, which attracted the happy attention of other passengers and even ticket collectors. From Split the family escaped to the island of Korcula before ultimately arriving at a refugee camp in Bari, Italy, where she met the man who would become her husband – American soldier Harry Jagoda. After the war Flory learned that her entire extended family in Vlasenica, including her beloved Nona, had been murdered by the Ustase – the Croatian fascists who collaborated with the Nazis — and buried in a mass grave on the family property.  Devastated, Flory knew that only she remained to continue the centuries-old family traditions expressed through their music.

That cultural legacy is what the concert at the Library of Congress celebrated. Flory has succeeded in creating a litany of music that she has taught to and performed with extremely talented musicians over the past number of decades. Among them – and joining her on Saturday in addition to her family members – were her guitar accompanist Howard Bass and original apprentice through a program of the VfH Susan Gaeta, now both well known independently for their prowess in the Sephardic musical world. Two cantors with voices that made the heart stop accompanied Flory:  her longtime friend Ramon Tasat, president of Shalshelet: The Foundation for New Jewish Liturgical Music, and Aviva Chernick of Toronto, who frequently traverses the distance to Washington to be Flory’s current apprentice. And the magic that happens when Flory works with her two weekly students/colleagues Tiffani Ferrantelli and Zhenya Tochenaya was delightful to experience. Others who joined Flory on stage included Tina Chancey, David Shneyer, Betsy Cary, Alan Oresky, Larry Robinson, Theo Stone, Joel Leonard, Lynn Falk, Margie Jervis, Noah Taylor, Joanne Stefanick, Janet Dunkelberger, Heather Spence, Martha Halperin, and Cory Giacobbe.

From my perspective, Flory’s success goes beyond the compositions she has created, which have been performed and recorded by musicians around the world. Most significantly, through her songs she is able to transport her audience to the world of her Nona and the generations before. As a Croatian attendee said to me after the concert: “I am not Jewish and do not speak Spanish, yet in all the time I have been in the US, I never felt as close to home as I did tonight.”

Amazing, that Flory Jagoda, which is why she is the subject of a documentary JEMGLO is producing called Flory’s Flame, featuring a number of songs from the Celebration Concert.  Through the film many others will have the opportunity that hundreds of audience members experienced this past Saturday night of metaphorically flying to a warm and transcendent space in the universe.

A few observations from the documentary production field of Mumbai

On the seesaw of our lives balancing our corporate and web video production work with documentaries, Curt and I took a week and half hiatus in March from the tidal wave of incoming business videos to dive into a new documentary in India.

I mentioned the project in a blog I posted on 7 February. Tentatively entitled “Painting Peace Indian-Style,” our cameras follow acclaimed Indian-Jewish-American artist Siona Benjamin as she pursues her Fulbright award, granted to document through her art the small remaining Jewish community of her native country.

We met some remarkable folks. There was Samson, blind for many years, who was responsible for transcribing Hebrew words in prayer books into the local Marati language so that young generations can correctly pronounce the original texts. Munmun is the community cook. In a kitchen no bigger than 6 X 8 feet, Munmun cooks kosher wedding meals for 200 people. I am not talking the noodle pudding and kasha menu variety; Munmun tried to show me how to make puri bread filled with a pureed lentil mixture and a spicy veg curry. (I got lost after the first few steps.) Rachel was a former model then producer then editor – now a mom of a newborn living in a lovely, albeit tiny, apartment costing multiples of any such living quarters in Manhattan. There was Ret. Lt. Gen. Jack Jacob, a proper elderly man with an apartment filled with Indian miniature (and other) paintings, who played a major role in the independence of Bangladesh. And Ralphy, wonderful Ralphy, tour operator, businessman par excellence, networker, with a boisterous personality and one phone in each ear all the time.

You know them? In a way. You’ve probably met folks with similarities to them in many places. But here is one observation that distinguishes this Jewish community from any others we’ve encountered around the globe: The people with whom we talked said they have never experienced anti-Semitism in India! Keep in mind that Jewish roots in that country go back to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, around 135 BCE. In over 2,000 years of co-existence with Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and others, the nightmare of anti-Semitism has never arisen. Compare that reality with the discrimination and annihilation that rose and fell through Europe over the centuries, which some of our prior documentaries have touched upon.

Of course, the layers of discussion are far more complex. The recent bomb planted on the side of the car in which the Israeli ambassador’s wife was riding cannot be ignored, nor can the attack specifically on the Chabad House in 2008 when the Taj and Oberoi Hotels as well as the central train station were also targeted. But to the Indian Jews, these were instances of outside influence, unrelated to the daily peaceful relationships they have and have always had with their neighbors.

We go with Siona and her mom Sophie to visit the house in Mumbai where Siona was raised. Sophie made her career here, directing an excellent private school that occupied a few floors of the home. The school served many children in Bollywood- industry families.  Sophie had lived here for over 50 years, but sold it a few years back. (Siona left for the US a few decades ago, when she got a scholarship for an MFA in theatrical set design at University of Illinois.)

The taxi parks on the side of the street, and Sophie – still a ravishing, red-haired woman now in her 80’s and fragile — slowly opens the car door to visit her past. In seconds she is swarmed by women on the street dressed in the Muslim hajib, hugging her and smiling, asking where she has been, what she is doing, whether she is returning. The circle around her grows tight, and it’s hard for Sophie to break away from the loving attention.

In that moment I began to believe in earnest that the concept of anti-Semitism has forever been foreign in India. That reality — together with the popularity of veg food everywhere, the sponsorship of the documentary by the Taj Lands End Hotel, and the exceptional hospitality (I was presented with five separate cakes on my birthday!) — made Mumbai a nice place to settle into for a week of documentary field production. I look forward to the next trip!

Interviewing and Filming a New Documentary

Today’s video shoot was for a documentary. In addition to the web videosmarketing videos, and other corporate videos we produce through Voices & Visions, we also create documentaries through a nonprofit organization called JEMGLO on themes related to building global bridges of understanding and tolerance. In Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean we recorded Christian, Jewish and Muslim coffee farmers in Uganda who formed a cooperative to build peace and economic prosperity. With that documentary now in distribution, we are moving ahead to the next project: Painting Peace Indian-Style, focused on Indian Jewish American artist Siona Benjamin.  Represented by the prestigious Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea, her work highlights blue female characters representative of the philosophical and political themes she wants to emphasize, e.g., feminism, peace, home, universalism. Siona’s art stylistically amalgamates Indian/Persian miniatures with pop culture, Christian and Jewish illuminated manuscripts, and Jewish and Hindu mythology.

Last year Siona received a Fulbright scholarship to explore issues of identity in her hometown of Mumbai and its environs. She will be painting some of the people she has been meeting in the Indian Jewish community via her signature form, mixing their images with symbolism from the various cultures in their midst as well as mythologies rooted in ancient Hebrew and Hindu texts. Ultimately, Siona would like to use the paintings both to inspire Indian Jews to celebrate their uniqueness and to introduce this community to other Indian communities whose members have never met Jews, sparking new dialogue. Having resided in the US for over two decades, Siona is also interested in creating awareness here about her community that has maintained their culture and lived peacefully with their neighbors for over 2,000 years.

We will soon be off to India to follow Siona as she continues her Fulbright work, but for the moment, we have begun the documentary right here at home, since Siona is rooted in the same place as we are: Magical Montclair, NJ! In preparation for the trip, we captured a few sound bites on camera today to e-blast and otherwise post around the web. For the moment, here is a photo, but I will follow up with the video sound bite shortly.

Interviewing Siona Benjamin

Limud Polska III

From Sunday evening — Now is the first moment since I’ve had access to the Internet  on my laptop…

Like the Limud (lit. “learning”) program in all locales where this branded weekend conference exists, Limud Polska was filled with a range of interesting classes. For each hour and a half block, about ten classes were offered, including one in English. Pamela Weissberger’s class in tracing Jewish genealogy in Galicia provided a fascinating walk through history, not to mention lots of tips for those interested in similar pursuits. Pamela – who is also a good friend I often see when I’m out in LA and with whom I felt happy to share this experience in Poland — has been involved for years in the organizational level of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies; for those interested, their annual conference will be held this July in Paris. We also really enjoyed the “Illuminated Manuscripts” workshop of Monika Krajewski. Even though the latter was in Polish, we could pick out choice words from her explanations; those, together with the beautiful artwork and Hebrew writing detailed in her power points kept cluing us in, though we certainly missed much of the import of her comments. Monika is a world expert on Jewish tombstone art and paper-cutting design. She wrote the seminal book on the subject in the early 1980s, during the heart of the communist era. Learning with her is a great treat. She also brought arts and crafts materials to the class so that we could have opportunities to try our hands at illuminated manuscripts. Curt’s was frameable – dragons exhaling thunderous fire amidst the Hebrew letters spelling “Khai” (life). As for mine: Put it this way, I was the only student in the class to whom Monika kept returning to make design suggestions different than the direction in which I was going.

I always say people should know their strengths and weaknesses and be upfront about them. I will stick to writing and producing.

On that subject, we were thrilled that two of our JEMGLO documentaries, Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean and Safeguarding Memory: Commemorating Jewish Mass Graves in Polandwere screened. A good number of folks came to the screenings, and Zbigniew Nizinski, one of the key protagonists of Safeguarding Memory, showed up as well, which gave rise to an interesting Q and A followed by hours of discussion on topics different than those that we generally have with American audiences.

After lunch, the highest attending event on the annual Polish Jewish calendar came to its conclusion.  We left inspired, new ideas percolating…

Limud Polska II

Time warp at Limud Polska.

We remember the faces of teenagers 15 years ago who we pulled aside at a snowy winter retreat in Rychwald, Poland for interviews: When did you discover that you are Jewish? Who told you? What did you feel? What do you feel now?

The first documentary our organization JEMGLO produced called “Poland: Creating a New Jewish Heritage,” which splashed across PBS screens in 1997, presented many of these young people’s responses. They lived in communities across the country, from Wroclaw and Katowice to Gdansk and Lodz; from big cities like Warsaw and tourist favorites like Krakow to small centers like Legnica.  Each person’s story was different and life-changing for them. They changed our lives too.

We saw many of these faces again and again over the years, at various Polish Jewish community events, sometimes at their homes, once at a hospital visit, and in 2000, at our wedding, which we decided to have in Wroclaw to give recognition to this amazing community of builders. (I almost wrote “rebuilders,” but in fact they were building something new, rooted in hundreds of years of history but with a wholly reworked present.)

This evening after Havdalah — the short service that separates the Shabbat day of rest from the beginning of the new week – an Israeli singer belted out a range of dance melodies that would give pause to the highest paid Bar Mitzvah group back at home. The energy in the room was so joyously overwhelming – imagine hundreds of people jumping and dancing at breakneck pace and singing until their voices dimmed – that he finally yelled into the microphone, seemingly unconsciously awed by the scene: “Kol hakavod Polska!” (“All the strength to you, Poland!”).

Among the group of merrymakers were some of the teenage and other faces we remembered from a decade and a half ago. There was Kamila, now a lawyer in Gdansk, who leans toward a more progressive Jewish practice. When we first interviewed her, she told us that three years earlier, at the age of 17 (four years after the oppressive communist system collapsed), her father had shared the family secret: she was Jewish. There was the Czestochowa mother of the eight year old who was the star of that year’s Purim play; the last few years he studied to be an Orthodox rabbi in New York. And there was Karolina from Wroclaw, a young assistant in the community office. I spent hours today with her and entourage: her husband Robert and their gorgeous three year old Lea. They are all here, at Limud Polska.

Dear naysayer acquaintances: Please come and meet members of the Jewish community of Poland! They are not a fad. They are now generations old. And they are as comfortable with their Jewish heritage as their Polish roots!

Limud Polska I

Time. How it shapes change.
Fifteen years ago in Wroclaw, Poland I shared a Shabbat dinner with a group of about 20 people sitting around a large table and singing zmirot, happy melodies to welcome the weekly holiday. I felt like a pioneer discovering gold. Back home in the US the common assumption was that there were no Jews left in Poland after the Holocaust and communism. And there I was, a participant in a service with Jews (in some cases, maybe half-Jews or quarter-Jews or eighth-Jews or non-but-interested-in-Jews) who were singing their hearts out in the Hebrew language, instilling soul into their words, touching me on a deep level.
Upon returning to the States, I announced my discovery to my NJ Jewish community: There are Jews in Poland! Few listened. Most disputed my findings, even when they had never been there. It was as if there was a desire to hold onto an ugly belief that had been shaped by an unspeakably tragic past. Yet I had the opportunity to see the reality through a different light, then became obsessed with aligning perceptions and reality.
One important Jewish thinker listened to me and acted: David Twersky, then the editor of the NJ Jewish News for which I was the political correspondent, told me to pursue the story.
My love with Polish Jewry began then, and after all the print stories were done, I moved to documentaries. At that point my journey became a shared experience, and the cinematographer became my husband, Curt Fissel.
Fast forward to today, five documentaries on the subject later. Curt and I are this moment sitting in a hotel lounge in Warsaw for “Limud Polska.” Limud is the popular worldwide Jewish learning conference, and this is the Polish affiliate. Two of our documentaries will screen this weekend. We just arrived, and the lobby is filling up with people before the organizers have even come. They closed out the conference at 700 people, but the few hundred additional folks who called late in the game are still clamoring to get in.
Time. How it shapes change.
Funny thing is, unlike 15 years ago, I’m no longer surprised to see these faces here than anywhere else in the Jewish world.
I’ll continue blogging over the weekend. I know I will have a lot to share.

Yom Kippur in Germany

If I hadn’t paid attention to the Hebrew calendar date and had merely wandered into the building through the side door of this Christian community center, I might have thought we had stumbled upon an oddly-situated Passover seder. Well, not exactly. There was no food on the table and the vocals were prayerful rather than storytelling.  But the thirty or so very focused people assembled in the nondescript room sat around a U-shaped table and, as directed by the congregational leader, periodically took turns reading passages in the prayer book in Hebrew and German.

Instead of hearing: “Di, diyanu…” we heard, in a familiar but variant melody : “S’lakh lanu, mikhal lanu, kaper lanu.” Or in English translation: “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” The day was Yom Kippur.

My husband Curt and I have video production companies, and we were working in Germany a week and a half ago. Our last interview ended about 24 hours before Kol Nidrei – the start of the Yom Kippur holiday — began, so we decided to join a local progressive community. Online research brought us to the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde Köln, the liberal Jewish community of Koln. After sending a contact form in advance, we received an email that felt more like an electronic hug, inviting us to join them at their worship services and break the fast at the end of the holiday. They asked nothing from us.

And so it was that Curt and I found ourselves sitting around the table, running our fingers through an English/Hebrew siddur simultaneously with the German/Hebrew one, ensuring we kept up with the collective prayers. As if we were participating in the service at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, NJ — the Reconstructionist synagogue where we have been members for years — we added our voices to traditional tunes and contemplated the ways in which over the past year we had missed the mark (as our friend Rabbi Michael Monson describes the festival’s meaning of “atonement”).  After a few brief moments of initial adjustment, we could not have felt more comfortable anywhere in the world than we did in this warm, little community in Koln, Germany.

During the afternoon break, we had the opportunity to meet others attending that day. The services were led by a former BBC radio reporter. There was a writer of children’s books, an American post-doc student, and an Argentinian businessman. There were young children and some elderly faces, couples and single people, Jews by birth and Jews by conversion. The trait they all shared was the desire to be present. Not straying from the prayer book, skipping passages, adding readings, providing choral renditions, or whispering on the side, the congregation patiently digested the text a page at a time, hour after hour.

Cognizant that the community we had joined was in Germany, I expected to be particularly touched during the martyrology service, when the text refers to Jewish martyrs through time, including all those who were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Interestingly, 66 years after the end of World War II, I found this segment no more powerful in Koln than in Montclair, where impactful poetry and prose supplement and intensify the classic liturgy. And yet for me the service in the Jewish community of Koln emanated meaningfulness, sourced instead in the diversity of faces around the table and their devotion to the words they uttered hour after hour with such full hearts and souls.

Slowly the sun rose then set. About an hour before the shofar announced the end of the festival, close non-Jewish friends of ours who live in nearby Bonn came to Koln to join us. They, too, were welcomed into this warm circle of people. When the night descended, the group shared with us and our friends their delicious break-fast of homemade spicy tomato soup together with German cheeses and breads – and invitations, of course, to join them on the upcoming holiday of Sukkot.

We flew back to NY the next day, feeling richer from having shared the rituals of the day in the context of another Jewish communal culture. But we also felt that this community’s genuineness, devotion, and generosity had filled the traditional greeting of “l’shanah tovah,” “to a good year,” with a new and special meaning for us.

And so I recount some memories of the holiday we witnessed, hoping to spread the positive karma that surrounded us that day. May this New Year fill the peoples of the world with the kind of genuineness, devotion and generosity exemplified by the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde Köln!  And let us say: Amen!


Up until recently, I never had favorites. No favorite color, number, outfit, airline, or even restaurant.  Though my son Jared is a magician, I was never a good candidate for his mentalism tricks, like “pick your favorite card in the deck.”

But now I have one favorite thing I can talk about: My favorite part of my job, which is getting the chance to brainstorm and create little visual video stories about every person, place, company, thing, event – whatever – that comes my way.  Sometimes I feel like this opportunity has transformed my brain partly into a lens that captures infinite elements as I go about my day, and partly into a computer that crafts the endless possibilities into a fantastic string of short stories.

Unfortunately, not all of these videos-in-waiting become videos-in-reality, but I am delighted each time they do. The most recent video web clip focused on ONE of my favorite initiatives by ONE of my favorite people, Spyros Dellaportas, the organizer of my morning coffee klatsch in Santa Monica where I frequent when we are working out of our Los Angeles base. (Okay – that is my favorite real-life coffee gathering.) Spyros has formed an e-group, now living mostly on Facebook, called ENJOY YOUR COFFEE, with the goal of connecting everyone in the world through coffee. (I admit that I am excited about anything coffee-related since we produced our Delicious Peace documentary about Fair Trade, interfaith Ugandan coffee farmers.)

While you are enjoying your morning cup of coffee, please join ENJOY YOUR COFFEE on Facebook and become part of Spyros’ movement! With so many folks around the world already members and responding to posts on the page in multiple languages, I am certain the group will become a favorite page for you — whether or not you are prone to having favorites.

Film Festival Fever

Since Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean premiered at the IFC Center in New York last June the road has been paved with excitement. You can never be quite sure of how a film will do at festivals and with all the work and love that went into this film, the premiere was a very nervous and exciting moment for all of us. Right away, we had great success.

Delicious Peace was selected to appear at the prestigious Breckenridge Film Festival last summer, shortly after it premiered. It also won awards at the Bronzeville Festival in Chicago and at the New Jersey Film Festival. It wasn’t only the awards, but also seeing how well the film was received by audiences that really emboldened our resolve to bring this message of interfaith cooperation to the western world.

We were also proud to see it screened this past autumn at the United Nations Association Film Festival in Palo Alto, as well as festivals in Dallas and Cincinnati, among others. With all the success of 2010, we felt unstoppable. We could have never prepared for the surge in festivals 2011 would bring.

Imagine the excitement we felt, after returning from Uganda on a trip to screen the documentary for the farmers, to hear that Delicious Peace played to two SOLD OUT audiences at the very well respected Santa Barbara Film Festival. More than 900 attendees saw the story we have worked so hard to bring to the United States. It is truly humbling and quite emotional to know that people are embracing and sharing this story with such passion.

Then last week, as we prepared to leave for the Sedona Film Festival in Arizona followed immediately by the Peace on Earth Film Festival in Chicago, we were informed that Delicious Peace will show at the Vail Film Festival at the end of March! It’s the best problem to have, needing to be at so many festivals at the same time. We will show in Vail right after showing at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa. Then, just this week, we were invited to screen at the Fort Myers Film Festival at the end of March and the Santa Cruz Film Festival in May. It looks like another busy year for Delicious Peace and for us too.