IZMIR, Turkey — In Izmir’s minuscule Jewish community, Turkey's second largest after the 10,000-strong population in Istanbul, a Netflix series is a hot topic.
“I was deeply moved by it,” said Tilda Koenka, project assistant for Izmir Jewish Heritage Project. “It is a cinematic feast with its balanced story of our plight, the old, half-forgotten Ladino songs and our culture and traditions that are represented both accurately and with sensitivity. Through its multilayered storyline, it has shed light on a history that we have not dared speak about, even among family.”
Since its release on Nov. 5, “The Club,” Netflix’s six-episode series about Turkey’s ever-shrinking Jewish minority, has been both accused of waking the ghosts of the country’s turbulent past with its non-Muslim minorities and praised for breaking the code of silence among the Jews often called Turkey's "model minority” on the past injustices that deprived them of their wealth, language and in some cases, life.
Ozgur Kaymak, whose doctoral thesis is on Istanbul’s ethno-religious communities and their memories, told Al-Monitor, “This is the first series that has touched upon Turkey’s Jewish community without succumbing to victimization, caricaturization of Jews as evil bankers or greedy money-lenders or succumbing to rose-scented nostalgia on how multi-ethnic neighbors lived together all in harmony around the Galata tower in the good old days.”
The series revolves around Matilda Aseos, a Jewish woman in a once affluent family who has shot her Muslim Turkish lover Mumtaz for wrongly accusing her family of evading the wealth tax in 1942, when the government slapped enormous tariffs on the non-Muslim population, particularly Jews. Matilda’s family is ruined and her father and brother are sent to Askale, a chilly northeastern border town to do forced labor, like so many other minorities. Matilda, whose weary elegance a la Catherine Deneuve is portrayed beautifully by Gokce Bahadir, gets out of prison after an amnesty and finds ungainful employment at the avant-garde Club Istanbul as a laundress. The Club is a microcosm of the ethnic variety in Istanbul, with Greek waiters, Armenian light operators and Greek dancing girls.
Director Zeynep Gunay Tan shrewdly avoids the trap of romanticization, turning the cameras instead to jungle backstage of the gaudy club. It has a closeted gay star, cheap labor from the Black Sea brought to the casino to work for bed and board, dancers sexually abused and sold into brothels if they disobey and jobs taken away overnight. The tiny space for the minority characters is snatched away as nationalism and anti-Jewish and anti-Greek sentiments are fueled by the rise of Turco-Greek conflict in Cyprus. The owner of the casino, a Greek man who has changed his name from Nikos to Orhan and created a Muslim existence, is forced to replace his non-Muslim employees with Turks.
“Don’t you ever believe Turkish Jews if they tell you they have watched the series without shedding a tear; they are simply trying to conceal their emotions,” wrote Karel Valansi in her column in T24, where she describes her favorite scene — one she shares with the many women I talked to for this piece:17-year-old Rasel, Matilda’s child from Mumtaz who grows up in an orphanage and, like her mother, has her heart broken by a Turkish man, stands under the pouring rain as an old Ladino song, "Adio Kerida" ("Farewell My Love") plays in the background in the husky voice of Yasmine Levy: "I no longer want to live after you have ruined my life.”
But aside from the tribute to the almost-forgotten language and rare songs, for many Jewish people in Turkey, the series confronts past demons. The wealth tax deprived them of their most prized possessions, like the family’s clock Matilda sees on the wall of her cruel employer. The “Citizen Speak Turkish” campaign made them afraid to speak their language and the pogroms in 1934 and in 1955 robbed them of their sense of security in the land that had been their home for centuries.
The series’ first season takes place before the infamous Sept. 6-7 1955 Istanbul riots in which Greek businesses were attacked by Turks after a newspaper fabricated a report of a bomb attack on the house where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. The second season is expected to pick up with the riots in which clearly pre-organized Turkish mobs took to the streets, attacking and plundering homes and shops owned by non-Muslims, mainly Greeks.
“For some members of the community, many of the scenes in the film were a traumatic face-to-face with a turbulent past that they have chosen not to discuss, even among themselves,” political scientist Selin Nasi, who gave her own account of the series in Anka Review, told Al-Monitor. “One cannot help but wonder if it will help Turkish society make peace with its past by revealing skeletons in the closet or contribute to efforts to reduce prejudices and discrimination toward non-Muslim minorities.”
“It is not simply the Turks who will learn of the past with this series, but some of our own young people, too,” Koenka confirmed. “Mostly we spoke little of the events of the 40s and beyond.”
Kaymak, who interviewed hundreds of members of the Jewish community while writing her thesis, agreed. “Many of the elders, particularly those who have chosen to remain in Turkey rather than go to Israel, refused to speak of the grave consequences of the wealth tax. Some of them looked at it as the inevitable consequence of being a minority. One woman in her 70s told me, ‘One should never be a minority, even in paradise.’”
One reason for the silence was that after their relatives in European countries faced the Holocaust, it seemed less important to speak of a lost house or other property, no matter how unfair it felt. Another was that those who stayed in Turkey did not want their children to grow up with resentment or hatred. “Sometimes you need to relieve your memory from the weight of the past,” said Koenka.
But the series is not all dreary. It also portrays the lost beauty of Istanbul in the mid-20th century, when Turks and foreigners in chic clothes and jauntily angled hats walked proudly on the cobblestones of Pera. Rakish cabdrivers with Clark Gable mustaches made eyes at beautiful women and the hills overlooking the Bosporus was filled with trees, not cubical condos lumped together. Rather like last year’s favorite Turkish Netflix drama "Ethos," “The Club” manages to combine both cliches and relatable anecdotes for a popular series that touches upon current political issues such as relations with minorities, the cheap labor provided by migrants and the greed and abuse of new economic elites.
But whatever the series is, it is not a historical documentary. With different events lumped together, the historical timeline is faulty. The efforts to tie characters to real persons — such as comparing the singer Selim Songor to Turkey’s Liberace, Zeki Muren — fall flat. It is perhaps overly cautious in the way it talks of the losses of the Jewish community so as not to stoke the rage of Islamist circles. But the overall effect is one that the Jewish community finds balanced.
“The series whispers, rather than shouts, about what we have been through,” Koenka said. “But sometimes a clear, eloquent whisper can be more effective than a shout.”