Debbie Levy and Sonja Wimmer have created an informative tribute to the Jewish language, Ladino, and one of its most beloved and distinguished voices, singer and songwriter Flory Jagoda. Born in Bosnia to a Sephardic family in 1923, Jagoda escaped the terrors of the World War II and went on to dedicate her life to preserving and presenting the traditions of her people. Levy’s impassioned text and Wimmer’s lavish pictures invite readers to learn more about the beauty of Sephardic culture through the story of Jagoda’s courageous life journey.
The “key” of the title has a double meaning. Levy begins the story long before Jagoda’s birth in Spain, or Al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the Iberian Peninsula during the Early Middle Ages. Many years of relatively peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews ended in 1492, when the Spanish monarchy expelled non-Christians, including Jagoda’s ancestors. The Altaras family left with two parts of their legacy: the small key to their Spanish house, and the great and unforgettable key of their language. Levy presents the historical material in an engaging way, conveying to young readers the most important events after the Altaras found a new home in Bosnia. Throughout the book, selected pages end with a simulated curl upwards and a date printed in large font, providing a timeline for the narrative.
Like Yiddish, which has Germanic grammar but many words incorporated from Hebrew and other languages, Ladino is rooted in medieval Spanish, with vocabulary borrowed from the lands where the Sephardim settled, as well as from Hebrew and Aramaic. Levy’s description of the Sephardim’s transplanted world is joyous and rich, but not exotic. Flory grows up in a musical family which, centuries after being forced out of Spain, still strongly identifies with its past. The book’s text and pictures bring daily activities to life, from ritual practices to warm social interactions with Flory’s friends and neighbors. When a Nazi puppet regime takes over Croatia, where her family had moved, Flory’s world of secure connections is shattered. Levy recounts Flory’s perilous escape with tension but not terror, and Wimmer’s image of a young Jewish girl on a crowded train, serenely playing the accordion with eyes closed, expresses her strength. This is a book which shows the dangerous realities of Jewish history in a way which children can process.
The book concludes with Flory’s successful career, opening her culture to others with the key of art and faithfulness to her past. There is a brief section documenting her honors and giving more information about her life. Readers can scan a QR code in the shape of a key to hear Flory Jagoda’s performance of the Hanukkah classic, “Ocho Kandelikas.”
The Key from Spain is highly recommended both for children and adults interested in learning about Sephardic culture and history.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.