Going to Oberammergau

Going to Oberammergau

Two rabbis talk about how Jews recently helped change Germany’s passion play

Rabbi David Fine, left with Christian Stückl (David Fine)
Rabbi David Fine, left with Christian Stückl (David Fine)

So why were the local rabbi and his wife at the premiere of the best-known of all passion plays, the one at Oberammergau, last week?

And why had another local rabbi been at a dress rehearsal the week before?

A passion play tells the passion of Christ — that is, how the historical figure whom Christians see as their messiah was taken, tried, and crucified, so that through his death and suffering he might be resurrected and through that resurrection make possible the redemption of the world. It’s an old populist art form, dating to the 14th century; it was a reliable and compelling way of telling the Catholic church’s core story to its members.

The passion play at Oberammergau, a picturesque village in Bavaria, in the heart of Germany, began in 1634; it’s played almost every 10 years since, although it’s been on hiatus during war and covid, and occasionally it’s performed on years ending in 4, to mark major anniversaries.

But there’s a dark side to the history of passion plays in general, and of the one in Oberammergau in particular. As emotionally evocative, immersive experiences, they need villains as well as heroes. The plays are based on the Christian Bible, and historically, they’ve made their villains clear.

Who else but the Jews?

The history of passion plays to some extent is the history of antisemitism. Oberammergau’s passion play is the genre’s most well-known and longest lasting; Bavaria is not only Germany’s heart but was Hitler’s home, and the Nazi connection was strong.

Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck is the director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee. “My legendary predecessors in the 1970s and ’80s called Oberammergau the international capital of religious antisemitism,” Rabbi Marans said. “They called the play blatantly antisemitic, and they were not wrong.

“The play, put simply, the antisemitism in the play was classic; the Jews in it were venomous and venal. Nothing had changed in the decades following the Shoah, although it should have, because it was Bavaria, because it was Germany, because we were in a new era of Christian/Jewish relations, when there were directives about how the story of the passion should be taught and dramatized.

“But none of those messages” — including the messages of Vatican II — “had reached Oberammergau, and Oberammergau was the gold standard for passion plays. Not only did half a million people see it every 10 years, but it was the model for passion plays around the world. People looked to Oberammergau for how to do passion plays the way they look to the Metropolitan Opera for how to do opera.

“But then, slowly, things began to change.”

There were many reasons for change to have taken so long, Rabbi Marans said; it’s inherently difficult to change a huge production that is centuries old, happens only once a decade, is allowed certain kinds of change only when it is approved by a committee, and is the economic engine for the entire area all the time.

A view of the exceedingly Bavarian-looking village of Oberammergau. (Wikimedia Commons)

But “this is the story of the ability of one leader to change the narrative,” Rabbi Marans said. That one man is the play’s director, Christian Stückl, who “worked to change the narrative from within, in partnership with Jewish leaders, who recognized him as someone committed to change.

“Both because of his personal discovery process and his own evolution, he has used the play as a vehicle for addressing both the particular issue of passion plays and the wider issues of German/Jewish and Christian/Jewish relations,” Rabbi Marans said. “And he has said that there is no place for antisemitism in the Oberammergau passion play, and that is remarkable.”

Rabbi Marans has worked with Mr. Stückl for years. “The first time I went to Germany was in 2009, in advance of the 2010 production,” he said. “That became my decades-long immersion into Germany as a laboratory, to understand the immensity of its crime, the process of reconciliation, and the place that Germany plays today in our wider Jewish understanding, including its special relationship with the state of Israel, its absorption of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and even today, refugees from the war in Ukraine.”

Part of that work has involved the passion play. He’s put together a group of five scholars, mostly Jews, all experts on various aspects of the relationship between Christians and Jews, who meet periodically with Mr. Stückl to discuss the play. That’s historic, he said. “For the director of a formerly antisemitic passion play to come to Teaneck, New Jersey, and stay overnight in my home in April 2019, in advance of the passion play then scheduled to open the next year, and sit at my dining room table for a daylong seminar with a group of scholars — it is a whole new chapter in Christian/Jewish relations.”

There were many other meetings. “We cannot exclude the fact that there will always be challenges, because there are many versions of the passion within the gospels that have been used to inject anti-Judaism and antisemitism for many millennia,” Rabbi Marans said. “They’ve been internalized as part of Christian self-understanding of the story.”

Rabbi David Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, and he teaches Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel Colleges (a Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminary program) at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

He and his wife, Alla, were at this year’s passion play premiere in Oberammergau; they were supposed to have been there in 2020, when the play was scheduled to open, but covid put that off.

He’s been involved with the play since 2010. Like Rabbi Marans, Rabbi Fine is Conservative, so they’re both members of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and both read the RA’s listserv. So when Rabbi Marans put out a call over the listserv, asking if the rabbis knew any young Jews who wanted to go to Oberammergau, “I asked if I could go,” Rabbi Fine said. “I had aged out, but I got a special dispensation. That’s how I met Christian Stückl.” And that’s how his now decade-plus involvement with Oberammergau began.

The play is a major big deal, Rabbi Fine said. “About 5,000 people live in the village of Oberammergau, and the passion play theater has seating for 5,000 people.” So the size of the village doubles every time the play — which always sells out — is performed.

Something goes on that stage every summer during a standard 10-year cycle, barring war or disease, but it’s all gearing up toward the big show. “There are 200 people on stage, and an 85-person choir and a full orchestra,” Rabbi Fine said. “There are animals on stage; there are horses, there are sheep, and there’s a scene with two camels, and Jesus comes in on a donkey.”

There are two actors who alternate playing Jesus; they’re homegrown talent, scouted from childhood in town. Most of the townspeople have something to do with the production, either in front of the audience, behind the scenes, or providing services to the cast and crew.

Seeing the passion play is a full-day extravaganza; it’s 2 1/2 hours of performance, starting at 2:30 in the afternoon, then a three-hour intermission for dinner, and then the second act, which starts at 8 and goes till 11. “Most people pay for dinner when they buy their tickets,” Rabbi Fine said. “Most of the restaurants in town have a prix-fixe meal. And then you take a walk, stretch your legs, and then there’s music on the loudspeakers, and everyone walking back, everyone in this small town going in one direction.” The village is beautiful, Rabbi Fine added; it’s the kind of picturesque, Disney-ish place that we imagine it to be.

Then they all troop back to the partially open-air theater — its seats are under an overhand, and the stage is open-air but with a retractable roof for when it rains — to watch as Jesus is crucified, dies, and then rises, set to music, with live animals on stage.

But it’s different, and much better, than it used to be, Rabbi Fine and Rabbi Marans both say; the changes began in 2010 and accelerated this year.

This is a view of the Oberammergau stage from the audience. (Wikimedia Commons)

Those changes come in the presentation of who is responsible for Jesus’s death on the cross, they both say. The script is the script; the words cannot be changed without permission from the town council, and that is an arduous process. But the staging, the costumes, the acting, and the tableaux vivant that punctuate the scenes all can be changed, and because the play is so large-scale, so visual, so full of music, those things matter more than the words.

“In Oberammergau, they can’t defy the tradition,” Rabbi Fine said. “They can’t rewrite it. They can adapt it, but they can’t throw it out. They have to find a way to make it work.

“The real issue is who killed Jesus, the Jews or the Romans,” he continued. “Quite obviously, it was the Romans. The Jews didn’t have the authority. Of course, in the Gospels it is easier to have the Jews be the bad guys. It reflects the politics of the time when it was written.

“It’s important, though, to present Pontius Pilate,” the governor of the Roman province of Judea, “as the powerful one. He was the one who was concerned about the problem Jesus poses. Caiaphas,” the high priest, the most powerful of the Jews, “was just trying to take care of local politics.” But in traditional passion plays, as at Oberammergau until 2010, “Pilate comes across as the noble Roman, trying to do the right thing. It’s Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin who want to have Jesus executed.

“In 2010, they added elements that implied that Caiaphas was trying to please Pilate, but it wasn’t as clear. Our focus for 2020 was to make that a lot more explicit.”

It was easier to make those changes because “of the relationships we built,” Rabbi Fine said; they were relationships that “Noam put together.

“The director and the main actor, who played Jesus, were in Teaneck, and then a few months after that, in the fall of 2019, they brought us to Oberammergau and we spent three days onsite as they worked on sets and costumes and production.

“So the director not only gave us two days of his time in New Jersey, then he added two and a half days of his time in Oberammergau to work out how we can find a way to show that Pontius Pilate was in charge, not the Jews. Some Jews were pro-Jesus, others were not,” but none of them were in control of his fate.

That change was made visually. “In 2019, the change was that instead of Caiaphas parading in as the all-powerful high priest, he walks in like a regular townsperson. Instead, Pontius Pilate comes in on horseback, with much pomp. That’s not a change in the libretto, but the effect is enormous.” The message is clear.

The production used to include “Jewish crowds yelling ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’” Rabbi Fine said. “It used to cause shudders up and down Jewish spines. Now it’s done in a completely different way. There are supporters and opponents of Jesus, and some are in the middle. It’s non-binary. Not good Christians and bad Jews. It’s a mix of different ideas and concerns, and this is a tremendous change. It’s a picture of what we have to do overall — how different groups can understand each other.”

The tableaux vivant generally are scenes from the Hebrew Bible that Christians think prefigure their own Bible. Jews tend to see them differently. “Christians have every right to interpret the Hebrew Bible,” Rabbi Fine said. “It’s called midrash. They don’t do it the way we do it. Nevertheless, the presentation of those scenes are from our Bible. It’s incredibly powerful, even though the meaning is entirely different.”

He has a mixed emotional reaction to the passion play, Rabbi Fine said. It’s complicated. He does not have the kind of religious experience that the Christians who surround him have — and it’s no longer only Catholics there; Protestant fundamentalists book their tickets early and often go from Oberammergau to Israel, he said — but “it’s powerful theater.”

And he’s sure that “your average visitor going to Germany to see the passion play won’t leave it coming out with an antisemitic hatred of Christ killers. There are still some problematic parts, but this is no longer an antisemitic production.”

“What Christian Stückl has done has changed it from an implausible story that somehow Jews murdered the founder of Christianity to the story of an intra-Jewish debate, the story of the conflict with a reformist Jew — Jesus — who was born, lived, and died as a Jew. It’s the story of the complexity of the challenges to Jewish leadership under the oppressive subjugation of the Romans.

“To change the Oberammergau passion play was a very difficult assignment,” Rabbi Fine said. “It took decades, and the process is not over, but when there has been this kind of dramatic change, it is the responsibility of Jewish leadership to acknowledge it and praise it.

“It shows that constructive engagement often is the best tool, and that the leadership of one person can make an enormous difference.”

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