Tag: Judeo-Turkish culture

Turkish drama’s nuanced portrayal of good-looking Jews

Netflix has a new Turkish drama series , The Club – starring  Jewish characters and giving viewers a flavour of their Ladino culture.   They are good-looking and sympathetically portrayed, although tensions between Jews and Muslims are also present. Feature by Lior Zaltzman in Kveller magazine:

A scene from the Netflix drama ‘The Club’

A new Netflix show opens with a scene of a dark-haired woman lighting Shabbat candles, reciting a Shabbat prayer in Hebrew to herself in a crowded dorm room filled with women wearing head coverings.

No, this isn’t the latest season of the Israeli hit “Shtisel.” It’s a new, incredible drama called “The Club,” and it hails from a perhaps unexpected place — Turkey, a land not usually known for its portrayals of Jews.

“The Club,” or “Kulüp” in Turkish, landed on Netflix on November 5, and it is comprised of six masterfully crafted, compelling and incredibly Jewish episodes — with dialogue in Turkish and Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, the Jewish language spoken by Sephardic Jews of Spanish origins. The show is helmed by prolific and accomplished drama director Zeynep Gunay Tan (love me a woman-run show!) and features an all-star cast.

The name of the show refers to Club Istanbul, a new club opening up in the Turkish capital in 1955, and the show focuses on the many souls who work there. But it is mainly the story of Matilda, a Jewish woman played by the mesmerizing Gökçe Bahadir, a well-known Turkish drama and movie star. When we first meet Matilda in that crowded Jewish dorm room, she has just gotten a pardon and is out of jail for the first time in almost two decades.

Like many Turkish Jews before her, she sets her sights on Israel, hoping to start a new life there, as well as leave behind a land where she has no family left. No family, that is, aside from a daughter, who was born out of wedlock while Matilda was in prison, who she had to give away — and who she knows nothing about.

Before she gets on that ferry, Matilda has to get her affairs in order — she visits David, with whom she left her daughter 17 years prior, to leave something behind for her and to get help with assembling the paperwork needed to make aliyah. David tries to dissuade her from leaving — “It’s been more than 400 years, this is our home,” he tells her, urging her to reunite with her daughter instead. When she refuses, he divulges her daughter’s name — Rasel — and shows her a black-and-white picture of her daughter, now a beautiful young woman.

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Rare and dying Jewish dialects course attracts interest

A hundred people have enrolled  at The Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages in the UK  for its inaugural semester of courses in 12 Jewish languages, belonging to the Aramaic, Arabic and Turkic language families. They range in number of speakers, from millions to none. Haaretz has the story: (with thanks: Lily)

Youtube lecture by Dr Assaf Bar-Moshe on Jewish-Arabic dialects (Spanish synagogue, Montreal)

The courses, which began this week, run for an hour a week online and are free for all students.

“There are currently many brilliant research projects and online platforms concerning Jewish languages,” said Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and the creator of the new program. “What is missing is the possibility for the growing number of interested students to learn these languages, even less in an academic setting.”

This is why she sees the OSRJL’s format — online and free — as significant: it ensures that classes are accessible to an international pool of students.

Yiddish is one of the 12 Jewish languages offered by the OSRJL — and with roughly 1.5 million speakers worldwide, it is the only language offered by the program that is not endangered or extinct. In fact, Yiddish is growing in its number of speakers.

“People outside of the Yiddish-speaking world have this distorted notion that Yiddish is disappearing,” explained Kalman Weiser, a Silber Family Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at York University, in Toronto. “It’s not. It’s only growing. Judeo-Greek, on the other hand, is a language that is going to disappear.”

Weiser’s mother speaks Judeo-Greek, but unfortunately, this tongue, which originated in the Macedonian Empire, is expected to die out with this generation without serious intervention. Most of the languages offered by the OSRJL face a similar fate. Several — including Judeo-French, Classical Judeo-Arabic and Classical Judeo-Persian — are already considered extinct.

The latter is a language that Daniel Amir, a doctoral researcher of Iranian Jewish history at the University of Oxford, aims to study at the OSRJL. He also plans to take courses in Judeo-Neo-Aramaic, a language with an estimated 60 speakers left.

“Knowing a language is one thing, but getting to learn and improve together with other people is exciting and motivating. All of these languages are ones with which I have a strong personal connection,” he said.

Amir’s family speaks a dialect of Judeo-Neo-Aramaic that is in serious decline, and he wishes to do his part to halt the downward trend. “Most of my experience with the dialect is through talking with and listening to my family, so getting a chance to formally study it is a great privilege,” he said.

Studying any Jewish language, whether it is of heritage or not, opens up a window into the diverse history of world Jewry, Weiser noted. He mentioned a theory proposed by sociolinguist Max Weinreich in “The History of the Yiddish Language,” which suggests that there is an unbroken chain of Jewish languages stemming from ancient Hebrew to today, where Yiddish is the latest link.

“Once you take this approach, any Jewish language becomes a vital part of Jewishness,” Weiser said. “You start off at one place but then you begin to see the bigger picture.”

Though the chances that Karaim (a Turkic language with roughly 80 speakers) or Judeo-Italian (a Romance language with 250 speakers) are one’s heritage language are low today, studying them can be a potent exercise in understanding the broader Jewish experience. Olszowy-Schlanger told JTA that the OSRJL intends to bolster the connection students feel to their cultures, both through the language courses and by offering a variety of other online content, including blog publications on exceptional books and a 16-lecture series on Yiddish music.

The ripple effects of a program like this are not secluded to the Jewish realm — Weiser mentioned that many past Jewish language initiatives were in tandem, influenced by, or would go on to influence other Indigenous language programs.

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The Jew who helped bring cinema to the Ottomans

Not much is known about Sigmund Weinberg, a Romanian Jew who opened a photographic and optical equipment shop in Istanbul. Official photographer to two Ottoman sultans, he became one of the pioneers of Turkish cinema. Now a film has been made about him by Savas Arslan. Profile in the Daily Sabah (with thanks: Edna):

Sigmund Weinberg: represented the French Pathé company
Weinberg was one of the photographers taken under the care of the palace. Sultan Abdülhamid II supported and directed all photographers in the country at the time. The earliest photographs of the Ottoman era date back to his reign. He had photographs taken of all the statesmen, including himself, the army and even inmates in prisons. The entire Ottoman territory, including Istanbul, Mecca and Medina, was also photographed upon his request.

Was Weinberg the one who brought cinema to the Ottomans? Yes, he was one of the people who brought this technology in his era, but he was not the only one. From the first quarter of the 1900s, cinema gradually became an important part of entertainment life in Istanbul, with longer and more extensive film screenings.

The organizers of film screenings in these years were Istanbul’s artisans, Ottoman merchants who followed the technologies of the period and businessmen from abroad. Among those who were instrumental in the introduction of cinema to the Ottomans were Weinberg, French painter Henri Delavallee, music hall and circus operator Ramirez, French palace illusionist Bertrand, engineer and film equipment manufacturer Pierre-Victor Continsouza and Yıldız Palace’s interpreter Sabuncuzade Louis Alberi.

The first film was screened in 1896 by a Frenchman named Bertrand who organized cultural and artistic activities at Yıldız Palace. Sultan Abdülhamid II watched the film with his family and took great interest in it.

In 1897, Weinberg started to show films to the people of Istanbul as the Istanbul representative of Pathé Film. These screenings were short but engaging pastimes attended by families, including children. From that year onward, film screenings continued to increase.

The machine used in this screening was brought by Weinberg from France. It was a projection machine that produced light through oxygen, used in early cinema technologies of the pre-electric era. He projected minute-long films on a 2-meter-wide screen.

After carrying out screenings in various places, Weinberg in 1908 opened the Pathé cinema, the first established cinema hall in Istanbul. He operated this hall until 1916.

Weinberg produced films of historical importance as well as operating the movie house and broadcasting and distributing films. In October 1899, he wrote a letter to the sultan in order to film the Ottoman army. He also presented the sultan with a catalog of cinematographers, which are motion picture film cameras also serving as film projectors and printers.

The French Pathé is one of the film companies that operated in the early years of cinema in the Ottoman Empire. As in many countries, they opened a representative office in Istanbul.

Nearly all of the films screened from 1902-1913 belonged to Pathé. The company was the sole dominator of the Ottoman market with its distribution network. It did not limit its investments to Istanbul and opened movie theaters in Izmir and Thessaloniki, two of the most cosmopolitan cities.

Weinberg also made records in the name of Pathé film that were watched in Ottoman territory. Thanks to him, many historical happenings were recorded on film. He filmed one of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s Cuma Selamlığı, a tradition practiced by Ottoman sultans on their way to Friday prayers, in the Hamidiye Mosque in 1908. He also recorded other important events of the period, such as the election held in November 1908 and the opening of the Assembly in Istanbul.

Weinberg also filmed Sultan Mehmed V Reşad, who ascended to the throne after Sultan Abdülhamid II. He recorded the parade of the Ottoman navy at a ceremony at which Sultan Mehmed V Reşad was present in 1910. Documentary films, which he took by approaching the sultan as close as 5 meters away with special permission from the sultanate, were screened in various halls.

Additionally, he shot occupied Istanbul and filmed many current cases. These included sports competitions, the funeral of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople and some large fires in Istanbul. He was documenting history with both films and photographs.

Weinberg was a figure with supreme commercial acumen, foreseeing the future of all kinds of innovation. Between 1885 and 1889, his shop both assumed representation of various foreign companies and imported photographic material.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II

By the time of World War I, the film industry had developed considerably. Thus, it was used as one of the most effective means of propaganda. The government of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which dragged the Ottomans into the war, wanted to use it well.

During this period, Weinberg was appointed head of the Central Army Cinema Department (MOSD), which was established by the order of Enver Pasha, minister of war and acting commander-in-chief. He was ordered to film the Romanian and Galician fronts. These important images were shown in the Palas Cinema on June 9, 1917.

However, the government of CUP, which cooperated with the Germans in the war, dismissed Weinberg. Surely, the ultra-nationalist CUP officers who cooperated with the Germans would not trust a Jew who was the representative of a French company. Romania was also a hostile force, and Weinberg descended from a Romanian family.

Grandparents of Edna-Anzarut-Turner (who alerted us to this article) after their wedding in Constantinople. They are sitting at the back. Signmund Weinberg is at the wheel. Next to him is Karl Karlmann, one of the first to found Bon Marché, an elegant and select department store in Constantinople.

Although he always considered himself an Ottoman citizen, the concept of the nation-state of the new world prevailed after the war.

What did Weinberg do after the founding of the Republic of Turkey? Information about him is scarce as he was pacified during the war years. His wife Caroline moved to Tel Aviv in 1927, with her son-in-law Josef and daughter Regina. Weinberg continued to live in Istanbul after 1927.

He died in 1936, and at the initiative of his other daughter Elsa and son-in-law Harry, who lived in Romania at the time, his body was brought to Bucharest and was buried there.

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Jews and cinema

Envoy calls for a peace based on truth

The Israel Ambassador Mark Regev (second from left) with members of the Harif team at yesterday’s London event to remember 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Mark Regev, Israel Ambassador to the UK, made a plea for compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries to be included in any peace deal between Israel and Arab states. A reconciliation for peace between Jews and Arabs  had to be based on truth, he said. He urged people who had gone through the experience of displacement to document their  history.

Mr Regev was speaking to a packed house at a concert on 2 December featuring the Israeli oudist and percussionist Yinon Muallem and his band. Pointing out a chart in the concert brochure showing the extent of displacement of Jews from Arab countries, Mr Regev referred to his own wife Vered, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Aleppo in Syria.

Shirley Smart, cellist and Vasilis Sarikis, percussionist, accompany Yinon Muallem in the centre.

” As we remember their plight, we acknowledge Israel not just a safe haven…but also as a land abundant in promise,’ the Ambassador wrote in the concert brochure.

Lyn Julius of Harifsaid that the mass departure of the Jews had left a gaping hole in the musical culture of Arab states. “Iraq’s loss is Israel’s gain,”she said. The evening was a celebration of Israel’s thriving Middle Eastern musical scene.

Yinon Muallem, whose Iraq-born father David is an eminent musicologist, typifies this vibrant culture. Although influenced by his father as well as contemporary jazz and rock, he also brought to his music Turkish, Sufi, gypsy, klezmer and Jewish  themes. Muallem flew in to London from Turkey, where he now lives,  for his UK musical debut.

The concert(most of which was livestreamed) was hosted by JW3 and arranged by Harif in collaboration with the Jewish Music Institute and the Israel Embassy.

How Turkish Jews preserved Sephardi traditions

From cheese to baby showers, Turkish Jews, who fled Spain in the 15th century,  have customs peculiar to their community. Karen Gerson Sarhon of the Turkish-Ottoman Sephardic Cultural Research Center explains to the  Daily Sabah: 

 Karen Gerson Sarhon in her Istanbul home

Daily Sabah: Could you talk about Sephardic cuisine and “kashrut” (kosher), referring to Jewish dietary rules?

Karen Gerson Şarhon: There are foods eaten only by Jews and
unfamiliar to other communities. For instance, “Atramuz” is a kind of
chickpea known as a “Jewish bean” in Turkey. Only fishmongers sell it
and it is still consumed in Spain. There is also a fish that Jews
frequently prefer eating. We call it Gaya fish; however, it is generally
called rockling fish. When we were little, fishmongers used to visit
our neighborhood on Thursdays as they knew that the Jews would buy the
fish for Friday dinner. Traditionally, we ate fish on Fridays. I do not
know why rockling fish is preferred among Jews. Spanish Jews consume
that fish, yet it is not a tradition among other Jewish communities.

I have always wondered whether the name of “kashar” cheese is related to
our culture or not. Once I directed this question to history professor
Rena Molho, who came from Greece. She told me that this cheese is called
“kashkaval” in the Balkans. Moreover, she said this type of cheese was
introduced to Anatolia by the Jews. She also said the cheese stays fresh
for a long period of time and is halal. During our travel to Cordoba,
we were offered “kashar” cheese, which is similar to the “kashar” in
Turkey. The only difference was that they served the cheese with olive
oil. They said the cheese is called “queso manchego” and it is unique to
their region. However, I told them that we have the same cheese in

The Jews who escaped the Inquisition passed through the Bay of Gibraltar
and settled in Morocco. Some mentioned a specific fish consumed by
Moroccan Jews that is also considered kosher. When I learned this, I
talked to historian Naim Güleryüz. He said the Jews that migrated to the
Ottoman Empire during that period settled in Thrace. According to him,
they ran dairy farms and produced cheese that was called “kashar,”
meaning “halal” in their language. In addition, the sponge cake known as
“boyoz,” which is a pastry unique to İzmir, was also brought to
Anatolia by the Jews. The name “boyoz” is derived from the Judeo-Spanish
word “borekas.” This pastry had a profound impact on İzmir’s culture.
Furthermore, almond paste obviously belongs to our culture. You can come
across almond paste anywhere from Toledo to Masapan; however, the paste
in Turkey tastes better. When people move from one place to another,
they bring their culture’s cuisine with them and it becomes more refined
over time, as we have seen with almond paste and peanut butter. Namely,
Antalya’s special paste made with almond and peanut tastes better than

Also, drinking wine is a tradition in our festivities, while we consume
rakı (a strong Turkish spirit flavored with anise) at funerals. Since
rakı is a strong alcoholic beverage, it is believed to eliminate sorrow.
At funerals, cookies are prepared with rakı. The foods to be served at a
funeral are shaped in a circle, referring to the symbol of “Ouroboros,”
(the cycle of life). We consume olives or eggs at funerals as well. (…)

DS: How did “maftirim” emerge?

KGŞ: Maftirim is a kind of hymn that emerged in Edirne in the
16th century. It is performed with Turkish classical music maqams. There
used to be a place near the Edirne Synagogue where “hazans” (cantors)
used to perform it, especially after Saturday prayers. Sometimes Sufis
accompanied them at the synagogue. For years, they visited each other to
perform the hymns. The Jewish society in Edirne published a book
featuring 500 maftirims. The head of the synagogue choir was responsible
for training others, and beginners were later given senior positions.

After the 1934 Thrace pogroms, the Jewish people left the area and the
choir ceased to exist. Some of them settled in South America and
Australia, but a large portion came to Istanbul and continued the
tradition. In the early 1980s, three maftirim masters – David Behar,
Itzhak Maçoro and David Sevi – gathered to record 63 compositions in a
studio established at a synagogue. Until 2003, when our foundation was
established, they did not do any other work on this project.
Nevertheless, I asked them to release the hymns. It took six years,
since some compositions are hand-written and we transferred them to a
digital format. We also discovered some makams like “Nühüft,” which we
had not known before.

The compositions had to be translated because all
our publications are released in Turkish, English and Ladino. We learned
that there was only one person who could do this. Previously living in
Kuzguncuk, Professor Isaac Yerushalmi was an academic and religious man
teaching in the U.S. He can speak 16 languages and translated the
compositions into Ladino and English. The project was an arduous task
because Hebrew is a language without vowels. A friend of mine, Professor
Tova Beeri from Tel Aviv helped us add vowels to the piece. The preface
was written by the world’s only maftirim expert, Professor Edwin
Seroussi, who is also the head of the Department of Music at the
University of Jerusalem. Our work was purchased by nearly all
universities in the U.S. Along with six-hour maftirim selection, a
one-hour DVD was released as well. The project is special for us because
we keep 63 mafitirims alive through the album.

DS: What does “entravista” mean? Is it still practiced?

KGŞ: There used to be professional matchmakers called
“kazamentra,” who visited neighborhoods to see young girls. They used to
decide which girl can be ideal for men in the area. There was also a
dowry tradition known as “dota.” Girls used to give dowries to men. If a
girl offered a good dowry then she could find many men. Otherwise,
girls who were not beautiful enough and without a dowry could not get
married. The kazamentras were responsible for organizing them. The term
“entravista” refers to the couple’s meeting. In the past, Sephardic
girls got married when their menstruation periods began. There was a
belief that it was religiously favorable to have the wedding night on a
Friday. Until the 1980s, girls without a dota could not get married.
Whether or not they had a good job or education, they could not get
married. After the 1990s, families gathered to solve the problem. As you
know, marriages do not happen at young ages now.

DS: Baby showers seem to be a popular and modern cultural tradition,
yet it has existed for years in the Sephardic community. What do you
call it? Could you explain how you organize baby showers?

KGŞ: “Fashadura” is a tradition of Sephardic Jews in Turkey. In
the fifth or seventh month of pregnancy – generally waiting until the
threat of miscarriage has passed – expecting mothers have a women-only
party. Men join these parties in the evening. Family members have a
special dinner, which is actually an Eastern tradition. In the past, a
baby’s sex was not known before the birth but now we organize the
parties based on the baby’s sex. First, we buy raw fabric that
symbolizes long life and choose someone to cut the cloth to make a snap
suit. The parents of the person who cuts it must be alive as we believe
that the baby will then live with his parents. The cloth is cut long to
symbolize the baby’s long life. We spread gold coins and white sugar on
it. This practice is associated with a fertile and happy life. We give
our best wishes and the person makes a snap suit, which will then be
brought to the hospital when the baby is born. This is the first outfit a
baby wears. Other friends also give presents. Fashadura later spread to
U.S. and other countries, and the baby shower holds a special place in
popular culture.

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