Revised Passion play paints Jews in slightly better light

BERLIN — 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, applauded 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, focusing on the time between Palm Sunday, when Christians believe Jesus entered Jerusalem, and Easter, when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected. Christians refer to this period as Passion week.

The play has been performed in Oberammergau, Germany, every decade since the 1630s. At that time, the Plague-ridden townspeople had promised to enact 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, the event is expected to draw 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 theater-goers. "They believe that what they are seeing is the gospel truth… 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 the negative portrayals of Jews as greedy, evil and amoral enemies of Jesus.

In a performance Rudin saw in 1984, which marked its 350th anniversary, the costume of a Jewish priest included devil horns, while other Jewish characters wore yellow robes the same color as the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule.

The residents of Oberammergau did make 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 eliminated.

The goal, Huber said, has been to remove stereotypes of "typical Jews" from both the costumes and the text, and to get rid of the polarity that pits the "bad Jews" against the "good" (followers of Jesus).

Huber and play director Stuckl are in the more liberal camp of Oberammergau residents, whose supporters include the town's mayor Klement Fend. Although they won the right to make the changes, Huber said many of local residents have protested 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."

Rudin and members of the ADL 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 statement charges, 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 the anti-Jewish imagery and text."

But Rudin still found enough of the play's depictions disturbing and offensive 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 not salvageable.

"In a Passion play, someone has to be the good guy and someone has to be the bad guy," he said. "And the bad guy is always 'the Jews.'"