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  • Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play
  • Gordon R. Mork
Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play, by James Shapiro. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. 239 pp. $24.00.

Passion plays, reenacting the final days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, have a long history in the Christian tradition. And a major part of that tradition has been the myth of deicide, the story that "the Jews" were guilty of killing Jesus Christ. Therefore Jews have a long history of being rightly suspicious of Passion Plays in general and the one at Oberammergau in particular. Only a few miles south of Munich (and Dachau), Germans have been presenting a Passion Play once each decade since 1634, and this presentation has become a model for similar presentations in America and throughout the Christian world.

James Shapiro, a professor of English and theater at Columbia University and the author of Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), is fascinated with Oberammergau and its play. On the one hand, he is pleased to see the village as a place where "theater still matters." On the other, he is deeply troubled by the tradition which "has long portrayed [End Page 140] Jews as bloodthirsty and treacherous villains who conspire to kill Jesus" (p. ix). In this study he combines historical research with personal interviews to look at the traditions of the play, the controversies it has aroused, and the reforms in the play for the year 2000. The book is informal in style, a story told in the first person without footnotes (though a chapter-by-chapter bibliography usually indicates which sources he is using). His interpretive framework is clear (he believes traditional Christian anti-Judaism is one of the roots of the Holocaust), but his approach is well balanced. As a scholar of the theater he recognizes the inherent limitations of the genre of popular festival drama, and as an American Jew with a Roman Catholic wife, he is respectful of the attempts of the Christian reformers of Oberammergau to create a play which will be true to the best traditions of the village, while eliminating the worst.

He is at his best when he describes the personalities involved in the attempts to reform the play. Otto Huber and Christian Stückl, the Oberammergauers who rewrote and directed the 2000 play, respectively, are sympathetically portrayed. He describes Huber as "a bear of a man, with a dark beard flecked with gray, wrinkled eyes behind thick glasses, and large hands with which he gesticulated wildly. . . .The Jewish leaders he met felt comfortable with him" (p. 18) The younger Stückl is a "lanky, long-haired, and energetic man, who in his black jeans, shirt and shoes looked like an out-of-place New Yorker" (p. 16). Both were birth-right Oberammergauers who had begun playing parts in the Passion as children, but who had developed reputations as reformers while teenagers. Shapiro presents equally personal and sympathetic descriptions of the American Jews who were pressing for reforms in the play, Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, who played complementary (and sometime competing) roles.

With the reforms of 1990 and 2000, the most obvious and egregious anti-Jewish elements were removed from the play. Yet, genuine theological differences remained between Jews and Christians, so the reformers were never able to get a kosher stamp of approval for their efforts. In 2000 Oberammergau presented a very "Jewish Jesus," but to be true to Christian beliefs, it also had to present him as the Messiah. Similarly, it presented Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers as the ones who condemned Jesus to death and carried out the execution, but (conforming to the Gospels) it presented the Jewish high priests as Jesus' bitter enemies. Ultimately, Jews and Christians will disagree on the divinity of Jesus and the causes and meaning of this death. Yet the disagreements should be accepted with mutual respect. Christians should recognize that theological anti-Judaism really did contribute to racist antisemitism, and thus to the Holocaust. Reforming the Oberammergau Passion Play (and all the...


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