“The Club” on Netflix: “Very important for us Jews”

Istanbul, the Ortaköy district. The traffic builds up on the quayside, people stroll in the evening light, flock to the restaurants in the nightlife district on the Bosphorus, others run to the ferry pier to cross over to the Asian side of the giant city. On a firewall in melancholy colors, the advertisement for a new Netflix series: “The Club”. The Turkish series is currently breaking records in the country, it’s about the Istanbul Jews, about Jewish life in the fifties and sixties and about the fate of a minority in times when being Turkish, and thus inevitably being Muslim, does once had a great boom in the republic.

As always for the minorities in modern Turkey, these were difficult times. They still are today. The Jewish minority is shrinking, only around 15,000 Jews live in the country with its over 80 million inhabitants, most of them in Istanbul and Izmir. Jewish life in Turkey – it will not only be marginal. It disappears. Slowly but surely.

Hardly any of the passers-by pays attention to the white steel gate opposite the firewall with the Netflix advertising, at most the security guards catch the eye when passing. Behind the gate is the Etz Ahayim Synagogue, one of the roughly two dozen Jewish places of worship in Istanbul. A good dozen parishioners gathered in the hall that evening; in front of the eight-armed Hanukkah candlestick there is a large-format screen: It is the start of the Jewish festival of lights. Community representatives from the synagogues of Çanakkale, Ankara, Gaziantep, Antakya and Edirne report, Jewish schools, hospitals, old people’s homes are switched on, and children are singing. One wishes for a blessed festival.

Jewish life is largely forgotten in Turkey, including Istanbul

Because of Corona, the parishioners cannot come together for Hanukkah. “So we connected all the Turkish communities together,” says Rabbi Naftali Haleva. “It’s really unique, we’ve never done that before.” But the parishioners – most of them are old – stay among themselves despite all the enthusiasm, despite the uniqueness of the means of communication in the digital age.

Jewish life is largely forgotten in Turkey, including in Istanbul, where the communities lived on both banks of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus during the Ottoman Empire were valued at court. Their ancestors, mostly merchants and craftsmen, were finally expelled from Spain by the Catholic rulers in 1492 after decades of persecution. The Sultan in Istanbul invited them into his kingdom, therefore most of the Turkish Jews are Sephardim, Spanish Jews. Some of the Turkish Jews speak or at least understand Ladino, an ancient Spanish, to this day. And the Jewish weekly newspaper “Şalom” (German: Shalom), 3000 edition, has its own Ladino page to this day.

Victor Apalaçi, film critic with “Şalom”, knows that Jewish life in Turkey hardly has a future. All the more he hopes for the effect of the Netflix series “The Club”, comparing it in his expert euphoria with “Roots” and “Holocaust”, series that had shaken up the societies of the USA and the Federal Republic capped by lying taboos and vows of silence . “The club is very important for Turkey, very important for us Jews. It is the first Turkish film that speaks honestly and in detail about the Jewish minority”. What makes the series so successful is obvious to the critic: “This film smells of real life.”

The past of the Jewish serial heroine is a no-go topic

The plot is told quickly. A nightclub opens in Istanbul in the 1950s. An ingenious queer singer and entertainer successfully breaks taboos and conventions there, but the real prohibitions on thinking and speaking apply to completely different questions than the shrill appearances of Selim Songür. The real no-go topic is the past of the Jewish heroine Matilda. She shot her daughter’s father – with very good reason -, is released after an amnesty, and wants to emigrate to Israel.

Before leaving, however, she meets her daughter, whom she had to give to the orphanage as a newborn, and at first reluctantly and then passionately takes responsibility for Raşel. She has become an irrepressible young woman who thinks so little of rules and conventions that she already has one leg in prison.

So Matilda hires as a laundress and ironer in the club, which is currently becoming the in-place of the city. Her employment contract resembles the self-commitment to slavery, at the mercy of the sadistic manager and villain Çelebi. What happens there in classic serial fashion are the characters’ ever more closely intertwined lives, the drama, the – very Turkish – inevitable suffering and failure in love and in life.

And that not only affects the Jewish women Matilda and Raşel, but also many of the dancers, tailors, lighting technicians and cooks and even the club owners. They belong to minorities, are Jews, Armenians or Greeks. Turkey was able to stay out of the Second World War, but still levied a high “war tax”. It was mainly the minorities who had to bear them. It was expropriation by fiscal means in favor of the Muslim majority. The minorities knew and felt that they were politically unwanted in the new republic. Many denied their origins. In the series, the club owner of Greek roots also forbids his mother to speak her own mother tongue.

Presenting all of these taboos and historical faults in modern Turkey, which are still in effect today, with the means of an often appealingly soulful series is a success in itself, and approval is high in Israel too. In Erdoğan Turkey, it is rather unlikely that “Der Club” will really have the rousing widespread effect of “Holocaust” or “Roots”, as the film critic Apalaçi dreams of. But at least one of the things Apalaçi loudly regrets could end, or at least change for the better. “The Turkish people do not know the problems of the Jews,” he says. “Only the Turkish Jews know the suffering of the Jews in Turkey.”

The Club, six episodes, on Netflix.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *