If you haven’t seen The Club, Netflix’s 10-episode Turkish TV series, you should. It casts light on a Ladino-speaking, 500-year-old community which today is a shadow of its former self. But the rot set in during WWII when minorities were taxed beyond reason, were prone to abuse by the Muslim majority and sent to forced labour camps. Yet this episode in Turkish history is barely known. The Times of London explains (with thanks: Lily):
When Forti Barokas was a girl, in the 1950s, she lived in a tight-knit Jewish community among the cobbled streets of Pera, Istanbul’s most cosmopolitan, and glamorous, neighbourhood.
Tailors whipped up the newest European fashions, and women with names like Rasel and Ester would not dream of stepping outside without a hat.
In the street, you were less likely to hear Turkish spoken than French, Greek, Armenian or Ladino — a language brought over by Jews who fled persecution in Spain in the late 15th century.
Yet within a generation this vibrant history was all but forgotten by many Turks and the city’s Jews had nearly all left or assimilated themselves to the point of invisibility. It took a hit television series to bring their world back to life.
Last week Netflix released four new episodes of The Club, a Turkish-language series set among the Jewish community of Pera in the 1950s that became an unlikely hit when it first reached screens late last year.
The series has prompted a reckoning with some Turkish viewers about the discrimination and, at times, persecution that Jews suffered in the mid-20th century. Many had no idea that there were still Turkish Jews in their midst.
At the beginning of the 1930s, there were more than 150,000 Sephardic Jews in Turkey. Today, only about 15,000 remain, worshipping at the remaining synagogues under tight security since two bombings in 2003 that killed about 30, and struggling to keep their community alive. In the roads off what was once the Grand Rue de Pera, now Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main shopping street, remnants of the dwindling cultures remain in the faded Hebrew, Greek and Armenian lettering engraved on old buildings.
Barokas, 73, was one of dozens of members of the Sephardic community in Istanbul who worked on The Club, consulting on dialogue and appearing in scenes depicting raucous Shabbat and Purim celebrations. In 2019 she taught Ladino and Hebrew to Gokce Bahadır, the Turkish star of the series. Yet, like many other Turkish Jews raised to keep quiet about their origins, she never taught her children to speak either language.
“We killed it, and now we’re trying to revive it,” Barokas said, adding that she regretted not teaching the languages to her children. “But there’s no going back.”
Kenan Cruz Cilli, a researcher working on the Turkish Jewish community, said: “There truly is this lack of understanding that there is a local Jewish culture.
“Unfortunately, the grand majority of Turkish people have no idea, especially the younger generations who didn’t grow up in cities where there were Jewish populations”.
As director of the Sephardic Centre of Istanbul, Karen Gerson Sarhon has struggled for years to keep the community’s culture and language alive. “Istanbul has a population of 20 million people, we’re a population of only about 10-15,000,” she said. “I mean it’s nothing. How many of them have ever seen a Jew?
“Sometimes when they do meet a Jew what they say is, ‘Oh, you don’t look at all like a Jew.’ What does a Jew look like? Horns and a tail?”
Since The Club first aired, she said, she and her colleagues have been receiving messages every day from Turks, some of them Muslims apologising for the actions of their fathers and grandfathers.
“All those communities, all those minorities, have diminished, become so small today. That richness, that wonderful multiculturalism has slowly faded away,” she said. “That’s what people are lamenting now when they’re seeing the series: that once Istanbul included all these cultures, all these people, and everybody knew everybody else’s culture.”
Archaeological excavations indicate that Jews have lived in what is now Turkey since at least the 4th century BC. Yet much of modern Turkey’s Jewish community was formed by a wave of immigration from the Iberian peninsula to the Ottoman Empire after 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews from their lands. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed and assisted the new arrivals and, over the centuries, they settled deep into the fabric of Ottoman life.
Yet in the 20th century, as the empire crumbled and the new Turkish state tried to establish its national identity, Jews were increasingly, sometimes violently, discriminated against. Pogroms in the Turkish region of Thrace in 1934 drove thousands of Jews from the area. A Turkish “wealth tax” instituted in 1942, as fear of a Nazi invasion was rising, disproportionately targeted minorities, wiping out family savings and business empires overnight. Thousands who were accused of not complying were taken to internment camps and forced into backbreaking labour.
In September 1955, a mob of Turkish Muslims rioted in Pera, targeting mainly the Greek community but also looting shops and houses belonging to Jews and Armenians. In the years after, many more Jews left for Israel.
Those who remained, said Barokas, learnt to keep their heads down and try to assimilate. A government-funded campaign called “Citizen, speak Turkish!” encouraged people of every ethnicity and religion to speak only the tongue of the new republic. Ladino, which had survived in Turkey for four centuries, began to slip away. Many began to refer to themselves as “Turks who believe in Judaism” rather than “Jews”.
In today’s Turkey Judaism is often conflated with Israel and Zionism — a fraught topic in a country where support for the Palestinian cause is almost universal, although Turkey maintains a strong diplomatic relationship with the Jewish state.
Netflix has disrupted the traditional model of Turkish television and film production, pouring money into series depicting subjects other than the traditional fare of Ottoman splendour and emotionally fraught soap operas. Yet it is still under pressure from government censors to conform to their interpretation of “Turkish values”. In 2020 the streaming service cancelled a series that had a gay character after coming under government pressure.
Critics have praised The Club for its depiction of rounded Jewish characters, in contrast to the antisemitic tropes that often appear in Turkish series, where Jews tend to be shown as hooknosed money lenders.
Yet for some members of Turkey’s minorities, a series like The Club is a risk, that could revive old hatreds after decades of tentative calm.
“I just worry that it’ll bring attention to them,” said a member of another minority group in Istanbul, who did not wish to be named, nor have her ethnicity identified. “We learnt to keep quiet and not draw attention to ourselves, because when we did, that’s when the majority noticed we existed and that’s when they felt threatened by us. This is a gamble.”
Barokas disagrees. “We need to go face to face with the past,” she said. “Both the good things, and the bad.”