The Key from Spain: Flo­ry Jago­da and Her Music 

Deb­bie Levy; Son­ja Wim­mer, illus.

  • Review
By – August 19, 2019

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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