If you have not seen the series “The Club” on Netflix, I highly recommend it.
The main protagonist of the series is Matilda Aseo, a Jewish woman recently released from prison and struggling to reunite with her daughter Rasel, who is in her late teens and was raised in a Jewish orphanage. At the beginning of the series we see Matilda commit the murder that landed her in prison, but it is only later in the series that we come to learn who it was that Matilda killed and why she did it.
The series has been well received by Turkish Jews for its portrayal of Jewish life in Istanbul in the 1940s and 1950s and for its grappling with Turkey’s mixed record towards its Jewish community. In the 1940s there were about 80,000 Jews in Turkey but today there are only about 17,000 due to emigration, mostly to Israel.
When I watch a non-English series on TV I generally prefer to hear the original and read subtitles rather than listen to the dubbed English. While “The Club” is mostly in Turkish some of the dialogue between the Jewish characters is in Ladino (otherwise known as Judeo-Espanol) which until the previous generation was the main language of Turkish Jews. Ladino was brought to the Ottoman Empire and some parts of North Africa by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. If you understand both Spanish and Hebrew, as I do, it’s fairly easy to understand Ladino. I also enjoyed listening to some of the Ladino songs in the series.
I knew some Turkish Jews when I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I also had a professor in rabbinical school who was from Turkey. In my experience most Turkish Jews speak glowingly of Jewish life in Turkey and the absence of antisemitism in Turkish society. Because of this, I was surprised to learn about the “Wealth Tax” of 1942 which devastated the Jewish community as well as the pogrom of September 1955. It’s true that these were both aimed at all non-Muslim ethnic minorities in Turkey (Greeks and Armenians as well as Jews) but it certainly presents a different picture than the one I had heard before. Given that Turkey is governed today by an Islamist, anti-Israel President (Erdogan) I was surprised to see a well-made and well-funded Turkish series grapple with these ugly parts of Turkish history.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian