It would be hard to choose the most Jewish moment in this year’s production of Oberammergau’s Passion Play, the grand spectacle that recounts the story of Jesus Christ’s trial, suffering, and resurrection. Begun in 1634 and performed roughly every 10 years, the play is produced by the inhabitants of this Bavarian village located in the foothills of the Alps. Maybe it was the scene where Jesus holds a Torah scroll aloft and leads the congregation in the “Sh’ma Yisrael,” the Jewish declaration of faith in a single God, or perhaps it was the Last Supper, where Jesus and his apostles recite the traditional prayers over the wine and bread in convincing Hebrew. For me, it would have to be the way that Mary, the Madonna, is greeted in one scene: “How fortunate we are to have our rabbi’s mother with us!”
An audience member might be forgiven for thinking she’s watching a sitcom written by the Coen brothers rather than a play that, for centuries, numbered among modern European history’s most virulently anti-Semitic texts. Hitler, who attended in the 1930s, said: “It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans.” Recognizing the play’s enormous propagandistic value, the Nazi leader even considered underwriting a Germany-wide tour “so that the whole country could be inflamed against the Jews,” reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time.
The Oberammergau Passionsspiele traces its origin to a purported miracle: The village was spared from a plague after locals vowed to reenact the Passion of Christ in perpetuity. Depending on your point of view, its survival after World War II and into the third decade of the 21st century can seem miraculous or puzzling. In the postwar period, Germany was forced to reexamine many of its national heroes and traditions that had been tainted by anti-Semitism, including Richard Wagner and the Bayreuther Festspiele, the opera festival founded by the composer. In 2022, it does not seem hyperbolic to say that the single most important factor in the play’s endurance has been the concerted effort to eradicate its noxious depiction of Jews.
As a theatrical genre, the medieval Passion Play could not be more anachronistic. The event has remained very much a curio (which is, of course, one of Oberammergau’s main selling points), a step back in time to a quaint past where peasants in a picturesque Alpine village came together to express their simple and pure belief through a performance involving nearly 2,000 participants as well as horses, goats, sheep, doves, and camels. In 1934, American Express’s sales pitch for travelers to Oberammergau promised a “place on earth where piety and faith will live, it seems, forever.”
For most of oberammergau’s postwar period, change came slowly. The town resisted calls from prominent American and European intellectuals to tone down the play’s classic anti-Semitism. The Jewish people continued to be portrayed as a bloodthirsty mob, and the high priesthood as a sinister cabal with more power over Jesus’s life than the occupying Romans. In the late 1960s, after the Second Vatican Council repudiated the ancient charge of Jewish collective guilt for the death of Christ, the Catholic Church urged Oberammergau to make changes to the play. But the 1970 Passionsspiele refused to make any significant alteration to the late-19th-century script then in use. It remained largely unchanged from the version that the American Reform Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf saw in 1900 and wrote about in a pamphlet a year later. Shaken by what he had witnessed, he summed up that while “people are free to believe whatever they choose, that freedom does not include the privilege of building up their faith at the expense of another people’s honor.”