Netflix’s ‘the Club’ offers a rare portrait of Turkish Jews

Imported Israeli television has given Netflix several big hits in recent years, largely focused on the tribulations of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews. The latest show about a Jewish community is very different.

“The Club” is a Turkish drama about a Sephardic family in the 1950s in Istanbul, and it is modifying what the representation feels like for the approximately 15,000 Jews living in Turkey today and offering the American public a window into a little-explored corner of the Jewish world.

The first episode of “The Club” (translated from “Kulüp”), which debuted on Netflix on November 5 and is available for viewing by US subscribers of the streaming platform, begins with a Sabbath prayer in Hebrew and ends with a ladino song. It only dives deeper from there, weaving the complexities of Jewish observance and the country’s ever-present struggle between minority acceptance and assimilation into its fabric.

From discussing Shabbat rules, to the tradition of kissing a mezuzah upon entering a room, to scenes filmed in Turkish synagogues, many Turkish Jews have found the show a revelation, especially given the fact that the Jewish characters are generally relegated to stereotypes in Turkish. productions. Turkish is the main language of the series, but there is some Ladino, the historical language of Sephardic Jews, a mix of medieval Spanish, Hebrew and Aramaic along with Turkish, Greek, Arabic and other languages, in each episode.

Gökçe Bahadir as Matilda Toilet in ” The Club ” (credit: Mehmet Ali Gök / Netflix)

“The Jewish people were happy to see themselves,” Eli Haligua, editor of the Turkish Jewish news outlet Avlaremoz, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

It’s not just Jews who are watching either, as the show has become popular across a large swath of Turkish society.

While the series can be tricky at times and its final resolution disappointing, the show’s true strength lies in the minority Turkish world it represents. The names of his characters make it clear: there is Agop (Armenian); Yanni, Tasula and Niko (Greeks); and of course, Matilda, Davit, Raşel and Mordo (Sephardic Jews).

Much of “The Club” takes place in Istanbul’s Galata neighborhood, known colloquially as Kula, a site that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for Turkish Jews. Today it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul, thanks to its eponymous tower, but at the time the show takes place, the neighborhood was home to a large and close-knit Jewish community, where you were most likely to hear Ladino in their winding streets and alleys like Greek or Turkish.

To set the stage right, the show’s producers brought together many prominent Ladino speakers from the Turkish Jewish community, including stage actor Izzet Bana, actress Forti Barokas, and Karen Şarhon, also an actress and editor of the latest Ladino-language print magazine. , The Ameneser. They and several other members of the Istanbul Jewish community had small roles in the series.

“I saw five or seven people on the show that I know in person,” Haligua said. “So, of course, I felt I belonged to history.”

Set in the 1950s, the plot follows Matilda (played by Gökçe Bahadir), a Sephardic Jewish woman who has just been released from prison, her daughter Raşel (pronounced Rashel and played by Asude Kalebek) and the other club workers. nocturnal headline. Club Istanbul, where Matilda is working.

When the viewer meets Matilda, she has been locked up for a murder she committed as a teenager. The victim’s identity and motive start out unclear, but as one mystery is revealed, another is introduced.

Jewish themes emerge throughout the drama. An initial conflict occurs between Matilda and her main opponent, the brutal Çelebi (pronounced Chelebi and played by Firat Taniş) when the latter forces her to work until the beginning of Shabbat in her first week at the club.

“Ah, that day when you guys don’t even touch a light switch,” Çelebi smirks before turning them off, leaving Matilda working in the dark with Shabbat looming.

Episodes later, Çelebi’s true backstory is revealed in the middle of a Purim feast, and quickly followed with a monologue skillfully delivered by Bana, a veteran of Ladino theater.

“You must know what Purim is, Matilda,” says Bana’s character, Haymi. “It is the festival of contradictions, the revelation of what was hidden.”

The six-episode series is not director Zeynep Günay Tan’s first experience with Jewish audiences. One of his previous projects, “The Bride from Istanbul”, became a huge success in Israel, where Turkish soap operas have become increasingly popular in recent years.

Since the Arab Spring a decade ago, Turkey’s film and television industry has replaced Egypt’s as the largest and most influential in the Muslim world. But even though Turkey has a sizable Jewish population, unlike Egypt, the change has not translated into meaningful representation.

“Until today, we had only heard the names of these people on Turkish television: the textile merchant Nedim, the moneylender Solomon, the Mossad agent Moshe, the Jewish businessman Mison, etc.,” wrote Gabi Behiri, an Istanbul-born Jew , on Twitter in Turkish. In the past week. “In other words, a generalized and uniform Jew was shown to people living in Turkey, using all known anti-Semitic tropes.”

By contrast, “The Club” portrays its Jewish characters, both rich and poor, in a largely sympathetic light.

“One of the most important things that people were really happy about was that the Jewish characters were not portrayed as evil or some kind of usurer,” Haligua said. “It was one of the first times that all minorities and non-Muslims were represented, not as evil or enemies, but as victims of the Turkification policy,” or the practice of forced assimilation that has characterized much of Turks. history.

“That was kind of a milestone,” he added. “And not only for the Jewish people, but also for the Armenian people and the Greek people.”

The show tackles another taboo in Turkish history – the time frame places the show in the aftermath of the infamous wealth tax of the 1940s and the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955.

The wealth tax, or Varlik Vergisi, was a policy of the Turkish Republic instituted in 1942. Its stated purpose was to fund a standing army in the event that Turkey was invaded by the Nazis or the Soviet Union. In reality, the goal turned out to be a transfer of wealth from the non-Muslim minorities, who were prominent in Turkey’s mercantile classes, to the Muslim majority.

As such, while Muslims were taxed at a rate of less than 5% on the value of their real estate, Jews and Greeks saw rates well above 100%. Armenians were the most affected with rates above 200%. For many, that exceeded all their wealth, and those who couldn’t pay within 15 days were sent to labor camps near the city of Aşkale in eastern Turkey. At least a thousand people worked there and dozens were eventually worked to death.

The law destroyed the financial well-being and security of many of Turkey’s minority communities, accelerating the exodus of Turkish Jews.

Almost half of the Turkish Jewish population left the country between 1948 and 1951, after the establishment of the state of Israel. The Istanbul pogrom of 1955, which was aimed primarily at the Greek population but also affected Jews and Armenians, also led to the emigration of thousands more.

The pogrom was incited by the government of then Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his ruling Democratic Party. Over the course of September 6-7, 1955, thousands of rioters who had been trucked into the city were frantic over false news reports that Greek nationalists had bombed the Turkish consulates in Greece and the boyhood home of the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal. Ataturk, in Thessaloniki. For nine hours they raided Greek neighborhoods, often side by side with Jews and Armenians, killing more than a dozen people and damaging thousands of properties, including 73 churches, two monasteries and a synagogue.

Menderes would be ousted from power in 1960 by a military coup.

In “The Club,” the viewer quickly learns that the estate tax is what destroyed Matilda’s once happy family, sending her brother and father to Aşkale to work until death.

That story is known to most Turkish Jews, but not outside the community, as the subject has been almost untouchable in Turkish public discourse for nearly eight decades.

“People had no idea what the estate tax was,” Betsy Penso, another Istanbul-born Jewess and Avlaremoz writer currently living in Israel. “We try to explain this to our friends and even they don’t understand it because it is never taught in schools.”

Thanks to “The Club” and its popularity in Turkey, that may be changing. Avlaremoz has written frequently about the tax and its impact, including a special series of articles on it this spring. Since the show’s launch, Penso said the site has seen a flood of new readers.

“We’ve been talking about estate tax for at least five years, but we were only able to reach people who were really interested already,” Penso said. “Now people who had no idea or were not interested are doing their own research.”

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