Netflix sequence awakens ghosts of previous for Turkey’s Jews

IZMIR, Turkey — In Izmir’s minuscule Jewish neighborhood, Turkey’s second largest after the 10,000-strong inhabitants in Istanbul, a Netflix sequence is a scorching matter.

“I was deeply moved by it,” stated Tilda Koenka, mission 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 launch on Nov. 5, “The Club,” Netflix’s six-episode sequence about Turkey’s ever-shrinking Jewish minority, has been each accused of waking the ghosts of the nation’s turbulent previous with its non-Muslim minorities and praised for breaking the code of silence amongst the Jews usually known as 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 Jewish family who has shot her 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 not need to reside after you’ve got ruined my life.”

But other than the tribute to the almost-forgotten language and uncommon songs, for a lot of Jewish folks in Turkey, the sequence confronts previous demons. The wealth tax disadvantaged them of their most prized possessions, just like the household’s clock Matilda sees on the wall of her merciless employer. The “Citizen Speak Turkish” marketing campaign made them afraid to talk their language and the pogroms in 1934 and in 1955 robbed them of their sense of safety within the land that had been their home for hundreds of years. 

The sequence’ first season takes place earlier than the notorious Sept. 6-7 1955 Istanbul riots during which Greek companies have been attacked by Turks after a newspaper fabricated a report of a bomb assault on the home the place Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born within the Greek metropolis of Thessaloniki. The second season is anticipated to choose up with the riots during which clearly pre-organized Turkish mobs took to the streets, attacking and plundering properties and retailers owned by non-Muslims, primarily 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 personal account of the sequence in Anka Review, informed 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 a whole lot of members of the Jewish neighborhood whereas 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 cause for the silence was that after their family members in European international locations confronted the Holocaust, it appeared much less vital to talk of a misplaced home or different property, regardless of how unfair it felt. Another was that those that stayed in Turkey didn’t need their youngsters to develop up with resentment or hatred. “Sometimes you need to relieve your memory from the weight of the past,” stated Koenka. 

But the sequence is just not all dreary. It additionally portrays the misplaced great thing about Istanbul within the mid-20th century, when Turks and foreigners in stylish garments and jauntily angled hats walked proudly on the cobblestones of Pera. Rakish cabdrivers with Clark Gable mustaches made eyes at lovely girls and the hills overlooking the Bosporus was stuffed with bushes, not cubical condos lumped collectively. Rather like final 12 months’s favourite Turkish Netflix drama “Ethos,” “The Club” manages to mix each cliches and relatable anecdotes for a preferred sequence that touches upon present political points reminiscent of relations with minorities, a budget labor supplied by migrants and the greed and abuse of latest financial elites.

But regardless of the sequence is, it isn’t a historic documentary. With totally different occasions lumped collectively, the historic timeline is defective. The efforts to tie characters to actual individuals — reminiscent of evaluating the singer Selim Songor to Turkey’s Liberace, Zeki Muren — fall flat. It is maybe overly cautious in the way in which it talks of the losses of the Jewish neighborhood in order to not stoke the fashion of Islamist circles. But the general impact is one which the Jewish neighborhood finds balanced.

“The series whispers, rather than shouts, about what we have been through,” Koenka stated. “But sometimes a clear, eloquent whisper can be more effective than a shout.”