‘Netflix series ‘The Club’ cast light on Jewish heritage of Turkey

About midway through the Netflix period drama series The Club, the fictional character Matilda Aseo, played by Turkish actress Gökçe Bahadir, takes her formerly estranged daughter to see the building where she grew up.

The series is set around Matilda, the daughter of a once-wealthy Jewish family who has spent the last 17 years in prison and recently been released. But her plans to emigrate to Israel are cut short after she reconnects with her daughter Rasel, her only living relative.

“I wanted to leave right away, without thinking, because this street, this building, they remind me of how lonely I am,” Matilda tells Rasel during a scene that shows the characters bathed in the evening glow of warm lights shining from the windows of her former family home, the sound of the strangers now inhabiting it spilling onto the street.

Released earlier this month, The Club tells the story of the mother-daughter pair against the backdrop of a nightclub in 1950s Istanbul that struggles to make its mark as its workers and owner, along with the city’s non-Muslim inhabitants, find their lives upended by a nationalist fervour gripping the country.

One of the most-watched Netflix shows in Turkey, The Club is part nostalgia for the cosmopolitan personality of Istanbul’s Pera neighbourhood, and part lament for the decline of that legacy, which stubbornly persists in the facades of chic historic buildings, the names of streets, and inside churches and synagogues still used by the city’s dwindling non-Muslim minorities.

A cosmopolitan past

Matilda comes from a Sephardic Jewish family, the descendants of about 40,000 Jews who, after being expelled from Spain in 1492, were invited to settle in the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Bayezid II.

In the cobblestone streets surrounding the Galata Tower, Matilda and Rasel are shown as part of a small but vibrant Sephardic community that speaks Ladino, a mix of Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic that still has thousands of speakers today. Matilda attends Sabbath dinners and Purim celebrations, weddings, and synagogue services, all portrayed in detail the show’s creators went to unusual lengths to get right.

Bahadir, who plays Matilda, was tutored twice a week for three months by Forti Barokas, a film consultant who also writes in Ladino for El Amaneser and Salom, two papers in Turkey that continue to partially publish in the otherwise endangered language.

That choice of dialogue alone, which often seamlessly switches between Ladino and Turkish, is enough to pique the interest of many Turkish viewers, said Nesi Altaras, the editor of Avlaremoz, an online publication focusing on Turkey’s Jewish community.

“The bar is already very low, for what people know, so a lot of people watching the show tweet, or ask, ‘Who are these people, what is this group, what language are they speaking?’” Altaras, who himself belongs to a Sephardic Jewish family in Istanbul, told Al Jazeera. “Mainstream Turkish society has become a stranger to Jews who live in Turkey, who have lived here for hundreds of years, so I think the show really presents itself as a teachable moment.”