BERLIN (JTA) — Nestled in the Bavarian alps, the city of Oberammergau has one major claim to fame: every 10 years, it hosts the world-famous Passion Play, which tells the New Testament story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It has been doing so since the 17th century, almost without fail, and it happens to be on now, after a two-year, pandemic-related delay. About half a million spectators are expected to flock to the town by the time this season is over, on Oct. 2.
Over the centuries, the play — in which all roles are filled by local residents — has been a vessel for some of Germany’s most virulent, religious-based Jew-hatred, feeding into the antisemitic conspiracy theories of the Nazi years and beyond.
But things have changed, observers say.
No longer are Jews depicted as eternal murderers of Jesus. The play now highlights the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers and clarifies that only the Roman Pontius Pilate — and not the Jews — could condemn Jesus to death.
Such shifts came about largely through the commitment of Passion Play director Christian Stückl, himself a native son, who has now helmed four rounds of the production. He has worked with Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as with educational groups in Germany, to raise awareness about antisemitism and reshape the narrative.
This week, the AJC recognized Stückl’s commitment with its Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership. Stückl has helped turn the Passion Play into “an educational tool for post-Shoah Christian and German self-reflection,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, in an award ceremony held Wednesday in Oberammergau. Stückl has been engaged in dialogue with AJC leaders since the late 1980s.
At the award ceremony, he said his greatest concern upon becoming the play’s director in 1990 “was to eliminate [its] anti-Judaism.”
The Passion Play was initiated in 1634 as a religious offering against the return of the plague to the alpine village. In keeping with contemporary Church teachings, the play depicted Jews as greedy and deicidal, proclaiming them guilty for all time. According to local legend, the plague never returned to Oberammergau, so to keep it that way, the town staged the play every 10 years.
The current run, which began in May this year, features nearly 2,000 local residents playing all the roles (they don’t all make it on stage at the same time). Its covered auditorium holds 4,700 people and faces an open-air stage framed by soaring mountains. Reportedly, most of the local men involved let their beards and hair grow out during the season.
Ahead of this year’s performances, Stückl inaugurated a pilgrimage to Israel for the principal actors. He has been trying to view the play through the eyes of Jewish viewers, and to that end has met with Jewish leaders and with students, noted Jo Frank, director of the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk, a Berlin-based scholarship program for gifted Jewish students. ELES students first met with Stückl in Oberammergau some 11 years ago, and they have met with him again recently, Frank said.
Stückl had invited them not just to have Jews in the audience, but so that he could get their feedback before and after.
“It was really impressive, because he is always trying to reform the text in particular,” Frank said in a telephone interview. “And within the Christian setting, this is an interesting task to undertake, because the Oberammergau Festspiele still has this very strange papal status: the idea that what they show is basically the truth.”
In that context, to change things is “highly commendable. What he has done is reform and bend the rules as far as he could.”
This year, Stückl also engaged a Muslim actor, which “would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,” Frank added. “He really does deserve all the praise that he gets.”
“For over 300 years we have told the story of Jesus in a spirit that has led to prejudice and hatred. For over 1,900 years the Church had told that the Jews murdered Jesus,” Stückl said at the award ceremony, noting that an American rabbi who saw the play in 1901 — Josepf Krauskopf — came away despondent, doubting that Jews would ever be “cleared of the heinous accusations that have been heaped upon [them].”
It is doubtful that such hate can be fully eradicated, but Christian Stückl “has demonstrated the power of one individual to make a tremendous difference,” Marans said.