The finale of the first season of “The Club,” or “Kulüp,” Netflix’s Turkish drama about Matilda Aseo (Gökçe Bahadır), a Sephardic Jewish woman trying to rebuild her life after a long incarceration by working at a club in Istanbul, ended with a birth.
The Ladino song “Yo Era Ninya” played as Matilda and her daughter Raşel ran through the streets amid the Istanbul Riots towards the club that was their new home. They are separated from İsmet, Raşel’s Muslim lover and the father of her child born that night on the floor of that club, surrounded by the Aseos’ newfound family just before the credits rolled.
“The Club” is a rare show — it’s a masterful soap, created by Zeynep Günay Tan, one of the most lauded makers of Turkish dramas, but it also explores Jewish life in Turkey in depths and color never before seen on TV. Season two of the show, which premiered on Netflix earlier this month, is perhaps a little less Jewish than its first, but the Jewish details in it are stunning in both their accuracy and emotional resonance.
The new season starts five years after that dramatic birth, with Raşel and her young daughter, Rana, perhaps the most delightful new character in this season, carrying on an incredibly specific and not oft-explored Jewish tradition: putting stones on graves. The grave in question isn’t that of a Jewish person; instead, it is that of Raşel’s non-Jewish father, Mümtaz, the man for whose murder young Matilda was incarcerated, killing her lover after he got her Jewish father sent to a work camp, where he died.
“Why do we leave stones?” Rana asks Raşel.
“So he won’t be lonely,” she answers her daughter. As they walk away from the cemetery, Rana, who Rasel raises as a single mother, takes a stone with her, maybe so that she won’t be lonely, either. Rana has never met her own non-Jewish father, İsmet, but he returns early in the season from a long stay overseas, trying to find a place in his daughter and wife’s life.
Meanwhile, Matilda and her lover, club manager Çelebi, are trying to keep the club open and afloat throughout many challenges.
Like the first season, Ladino is peppered throughout every single episode. Rana, like her mother and grandmother, speaks the Judeo-Spanish tongue. In one scene, a Jewish aunt tries to arrange a wedding for Raşel with a wealthy Jewish suitor and speaks to Matilda in Ladino so that Rana, who is playing at their feet, won’t understand her, only for the young girl to then run out of the room and relay that information right to her mother.
We also get a Jewish wedding this season: that of Rita, Raşel’s friend from the Jewish orphanage she grew up in. It’s a beautiful scene full of Jewish tradition, including the breaking of the glass, but it contrasts a difficult choice that Raşel has to make for her daughter and family — to convert to Islam so that she can register her daughter and get her enrolled in school. A woman at the wedding admonishes Raşel, telling her that her choice will bring her mother great sorrow. “They won’t even bury you in the same cemetery,” she says.
With the story of Raşel’s conversion, we also get a glimpse of something we don’t often see in TV: the motivations for Jews to relinquish their Judaism, less out of a lack of care and connection to their tradition, more for the sake of assimilation and comfort in mainstream society. As someone who carries the burden of motherhood without a partner in a world that does not make life easy for single mothers, Raşel makes a choice that she thinks might make her life a little less harsh.
Throughout the season’s 10 episodes, Raşel returns, again and again, to the grave of her father with stones in hand. It is clear that she still finds comfort in this Jewish ritual, despite her conversion.
The show also illustrates casual antisemitism ingrained into society, from a foe of Matilda’s wishing her a sarcastic “Shabbat shalom,” to Tasula, a close friend of the Aseos, telling young Rana that she won’t talk to her and other Jews on the first day of Easter, because a Jewish messenger was the one who led to Jesus’ death.
“The Club” is incredibly melodramatic at times, but it also touches on some universal truths about the things we do for love and power in this world. Keliman, an upstart singer who wants to be a headliner at the club, makes terrible choices because she wants to cling to power as a woman at any cost. Rana, a child, protects her mother despite the fact that it isn’t her job to do so. Raşel is worn down by single parenthood, by losing her youth and independence to its demands, and being abandoned by the man she loved. As a consequence, she lashes out at Rana in some pretty terrible ways.
I found this second season somewhat less compelling than the first, maybe because some of the characters that get the lion’s share of screen time are, for the most part, a little hard to sympathize with. Even Raşel of season two is hard to care for at times. It’s generally hard to like the male characters in this show, but it is perhaps a fair portrayal of emotionally stunted and immature men. “Yo Eres Ninya,” which is woven throughout the show, speaks to men who are the downfall of strong, Jewish women. The lyrics that repeat like a mantra throughout the show’s most dramatic moments are:
Watching this season, I couldn’t help but thinking of season two of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” Both Netflix shows feature moving Sephardi Jewish representation — with songs and dialogue in Ladino and delicious-looking traditional food. And they’re both period melodramas that explore similar themes: domestic violence, lost love, forbidden relationships, single mothers and perhaps most notably the relationships between mothers and daughters. And indeed the most beautiful part of “The Club” is the relationship between Matilda and Raşel, a Jewish mother and her daughter.
Despite some heart-wrenching betrayals, Matilda and Raşel find each other in season two — and forgive each other. In her darkest moment in the show, Raşel gets a vision of young Matilda, who talks to her about redemption and forgiveness in Ladino. And despite some of the grave errors that Raşel makes with Rana, she always seems to find a way to share a heartfelt, true apology with her young child. In that way, the show’s release was perfectly timed for the High Holidays, with their themes of atonement and repentance.
Where season one ended with a Jewish birth, season two ends with a Jewish funeral. It’s a devastating moment, one that I dare not spoil here, but the Jewish particularities in it are gut-wrenching, like the tradition of keriyah, those in mourning tearing their own clothes, which gets its own heartbreaking reinterpretation in the finale. The ending of the show leaves so much into question, and might establish a possible season three that would by default be a much less Jewish show.
Still, having the unique and affecting two seasons of “The Club” and their Jewish specificities is something to be grateful for.