Adam LeBor on the hit television show bringing Turkey’s Jews and their language to light
This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
When, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain issued the Alhambra decree expelling the country’s Jews, the news was greeted with incredulity in Istanbul, especially by Sultan Bayezid II.
If the Spaniards no longer wanted their Jews, he would take them, all of them. “Do they call this Ferdinand a wise prince who impoverishes his kingdom and thereby enriches mine?” he supposedly asked his courtiers.
The Sublime Porte was flung open; Spain’s Jews poured in and put down new roots in the Ottoman empire. Yes, there were restrictions, and they had to pay higher taxes. But mostly the Jews were left alone to settle across the Balkans and the Turkish lands and live in peace and prosperity.
For many, compared to life in medieval Christian Europe, the Sultan’s realm was a paradise. “Here the gates of liberty are wide open for you that may fully practise your Judaism,” wrote one to his friend. And Bayezid II was right: the immigrants brought useful technical expertise, in medicine and military science.
Nowadays the Jews of Turkey are one of the last outposts of the Ladino language
They also brought their language of Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, a mix of medieval Spanish, Hebrew and Aramaic. Ladino was once common across the Balkans in cities such as Salonika and Sarajevo. But almost all of the Sephardi Jews — who took their name from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain — were murdered by the Nazis.
Nowadays the Jews of Turkey are one of the last outposts of the language. Yet many Turks have never heard a word of Ladino, or even heard of it. All that has changed with The Club. This enthralling new Turkish series, showing on Netflix, is set in 1950s Istanbul when the city was still home to a glamorous nightlife and a substantial Jewish community. Much of the dialogue is in Ladino.
Gökçe Bahadir plays Matilda Aseo, a Jewish woman released from a long prison sentence for murder. While in prison she gave birth to Rasel, who was taken from her and raised in an orphanage. Matilda initially plans to leave for Israel but instead tries to reconcile with Rasel. She takes a job at a nightclub as a cleaner where the manager, Celebi, also lets her rent a room.
Matilda and Celebi’s backstory is skilfully revealed. The Aseos were a wealthy family who lost everything in 1942 when the authorities levelled the Varlik Vergisi, Wealth Tax, on non-Muslims. Those who could not pay were deported to labour camps, where some, like Matilda’s father and brother, disappeared.
They were betrayed, by someone they had loved as one of their own. Celebi’s own history, we slowly learn, is entangled with that of the Aseo family and the power balance between him and Matilda steadily shifts in her favour.
The thread of loss and longing runs through each episode, a poignant counterpart to the effervescent glamour of the nightclub shows. “I wanted to leave right away, without thinking, because this street, this building reminds me of how lonely I am,” says Matilda to Rasel, one evening, as she gazes at the house where she grew up, now inhabited by strangers.
In Rasel’s eagerness to be accepted, she tells her taxi-driver boyfriend Ismet that her name is Aysel. Eventually Rasel, marvellously played by Asude Kalebek, finds the courage to tell Ismet the truth: she is a Jew. Ismet slaps her around the face.
Istanbul’s Jews are threaded through the life of the city. A Ladino lullaby drifts through a courtyard, the festival of Purim and a wedding are celebrated with joy and wonder. But darker currents swirl: Celebi is ordered to draw up a list of the club’s non-Muslim employees. A veteran Greek employee is the first to go.
The series quickly triggered a wave of curiosity about Turkey’s Jewish community
The Club is a massive hit in Turkey and has been highly praised. In part because it is very classy television — the script is sharp and insightful, the characters are complex and believable, the scenes inside the club are lush and glamorous, all combined with a marvellous attention to period detail. Gökçe Bahadir is magnificent as Matilda, radiating a quiet dignity where powerful passions simmer below the surface.
The series quickly triggered a wave of curiosity about Turkey’s Jewish community, Nesi Altaras, a Turkish Jewish journalist, told aljazeera.com. “The bar is 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?’”
I suspect that there is the stirring of collective folk memories of a time when the Turkish lands — and Istanbul especially — were not largely ethnically homogenous but celebrated their dazzling, cosmopolitan heritage. Ottoman calendars were once printed in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Ladino, French and Bulgarian.
But as the empire entered its death throes during the First World War, it turned on its minorities, committing genocide against the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. That was followed by the expulsions and population exchange of 1.6 million ethnic Turks and Greeks in the early 1920s. The Wealth Tax of 1942 set the stage for a pogrom in 1955 that mainly targeted Istanbul’s Greeks.
Today fewer than 20,000 Jews live in Turkey, but they have welcomed this vibrant TV drama which has awakened many Turks to a centuries-old cultural treasure hiding in plain sight.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe