A Christian passion play that was once praised by Adolf Hitler as a “precious tool” against Jews will open again in Bavaria this month following a substantial rewrite with input from American Jewish leaders.
Project adviser Rabbi A. James Rudin, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, applauds the changes, but maintains that “it’s a troubled text, and that’s the bottom line.”
“A Play of Death and Life” tells of the story of Jesus. It focuses on the time between Palm Sunday, when Christians believe Jesus entered Jerusalem, and Easter, when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected.
The play has been performed in Oberammergau, Germany, every decade since the 1630s. At that time, the Plague-ridden townspeople had promised to perform the play regularly as an offering to God.
Over the years, the passion play has become the small town’s claim to fame, and a major part of its livelihood.
“It’s the mother of all passion plays,” said Otto Huber, who rewrote this year’s version of the play along with director Christian Stuckl.
Two thousand Oberammergau residents participate in the six-hour performance, which begins May 21, and countless others benefit in one way or another. This year, it is expected to draw around half a million people over its 4 1/2-month run, including many Americans.
“It’s a religious experience for them,” Rudin said of the theatergoers. “They believe that what they are seeing is the gospel truth, and that’s why I take it so seriously.”
Rudin is not alone. Over the past 30 years, the passion play’s immense popularity has been tainted by ever-louder critiques of its anti-Semitic content. Jewish and Christian leaders have decried stereotypical negative portrayals of Jews as greedy, evil and amoral enemies of Jesus.
In a performance Rudin saw in 1984, to mark the 350th anniversary of the passion play, a Jewish priest wore devil horns and other Jewish characters wore robes of the same yellow as the Star of David Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule.
The residents of Oberammergau made some changes to the play in the 1980s, but this year’s version marks the first major overhaul.
In preparing the rewrite, Huber said he and the director consulted with Leonard Swidler, professor of Catholic Theology at Temple University, and members of the Anti-Defamation League.
Among other changes, in the new version, Jesus says a prayer in Hebrew, and a celebratory meal is called Passover. In addition, the anti-Semitic Bible phrase from Matthew 27:25, “the blood be upon us,” has been taken out.
The goal, Huber said, has been to remove stereotypes of “typical Jews” from both costumes and text, and to eliminate the perception of “bad Jews and good (followers of Jesus).”
Huber and Stuckl are in the more liberal camp of Oberammergau residents, whose supporters include Oberammergau mayor Klement Fend. Although they won the right to make the changes, Huber said many of the small town’s residents have still resisted the modernization.
The play is still very much an insular event — you must have been born in Oberammergau, or have lived there more than 20 years, to participate.
“There are conservatives in Oberammergau who wanted their play to remain the same,” Huber said. “(The rewrite) was the work of the younger generation. We are interested in telling the story of the power of Christianity, but not in injuring others while doing so.”
The AJC’s Rudin and members of the Anti-Defamation League are still concerned about some of the play’s content.
In a statement, the ADL commended some changes but also chastised the new script for still casting Jews as unconditional allies of the Roman government that persecuted Jesus.
The general sense of the script,” the ADL statement said, is still “of `Jewish power’ against Jesus.'”
After looking at the rewritten version, Rudin applauded what he called “real progress” and said the writers tried to take out anti-Jewish imagery and text.”
But Rudin still found the play’s stereotyping disturbing enough to ask Jewish and non-Jewish religious leaders in America to submit critiques of the new version. In the end, he said, there are some aspects of the play that are unsalvageable.
“In a passion play, some has to be the good guy and some has to be the bad guy,” he said. “And the bad guy is always the Jews.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.