Oberammergau: the Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play by James Shapiro
The story goes that in 1633 the German village of Oberammergau was (mostly) spared from a plague. To celebrate the miracle, the villagers did what any red-blooded German of the seventeenth-century would do: they vowed to reenact the last week of Jesus' life every decade for ever. Fascinating as these "passion plays" are on their own, Shapiro is much more interested in the attitudes towards the Jews that both the play and the performers had. It is problematic, to say the least. Adolf Hitler was one of the play's greatest fans, applauding its take on the "mire and muck of Jewry." The Jews in the play wear horns or horn-like hats and are one-dimensional villains, set only on evil. One of the most interesting aspects is how a story of a Jew martyred by the Roman government becomes in performance the story of a Christian killed by Jews. For centuries, after almost any passion play or even during and after Holy Week (traditionally for Christians, the week leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection), Jews went into hiding, fearing for their lives as Christians sought them out to beat and kill them. Did the plays themselves help foster anti-Jewish sentiment or did people produce and attend them because of that sentiment?
And, yes, the Oberammergau play is still being performed. The current version of the play has been revised significantly. Jews no longer bear the guilt for Jesus' death in perpetuity and their characterization has improved somewhat. Still, the play suffers from more structural anti-Semitism. Can it be saved?