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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

892: Passion Play: it's more important this year to focus on Jesus’ attention to outcasts

Day 892: Thursday, August 25, 2022

it is more important this year to focus on Jesus’ attention to outcasts than to his challenging of traditional religious practices.

Today's reflection is inspired by Sandy McKeith who attended this year's passion play in Oberammergau, Germany. She loved it and sent the link to a story published in the New York Times about the play and its importance.

(Frederik Mayet as Jesus on the cross in the Passion Play, a spectacle performed every 10 years by hundreds of townspeople in Oberammergau)

What follows is an excerpt of the article written by Michael Paulson. Use this link to read the entire article and marvel at the photos.

OBERAMMERGAU, Germany: Once per decade, in fulfillment of a vow they made in 1633 and have honored ever since, the townspeople here collectively re-enact the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, and in an effort to look more like the people they are portraying, on Ash Wednesday the year before the Passion Play, hundreds and hundreds of villagers cease cutting their hair.

That’s why Christian Stückl, the Passion Play’s longtime director and relentless reformer, knew something was up on the day he noticed a short-haired boy peering at rehearsals from the doorway of a nearby garage. The memory is vivid, even though it was two decades ago. “You’re not participating?” Stückl asked.

“No,” the boy explained. “We’re Muslim.”

The boy’s name was Abdullah Kenan Karaca, and after Stückl promised his parents there would be no efforts at evangelism, the 11-year-old joined the town’s other children in one of the play’s massive crowd scenes.

That early exposure to theater was life-altering for Karaca, who is now 33 and a freelance director. It was also one of many steps in a little-by-little evolution of the show, which had a long history of restrictive casting rules, but this year, for the first time, has two Muslims in principal roles: Cengiz Görür, 22, who stars as Judas, and who thought he might try selling cars until Stückl persuaded him to go to acting school, and Karaca, who plays Nicodemus, a follower of Jesus, and serves as the production’s deputy director. Both men grew up in Oberammergau and are sons of Turkish immigrants.

“I know my family doesn’t go back to the beginning of the vow, but still,” Karaca said. “It’s my tradition too.”

The Passion Play, staged 42 times since 1634, this year opened in May, delayed two years by the coronavirus pandemic, and runs through Oct. 2. Renowned for its scale as well as its constancy, it has a current cast of 1,400 adults and 400 children, or about one-third of the town’s 5,400 residents; an onstage menagerie that includes a donkey for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and horses, camels, sheep, goats, chickens and homing pigeons.


Presented on an open-air stage at the front of a 4,384-seat covered theater, it draws a sizable audience — in normal years, about 450,000 attendees over 110 performances, making it an economic driver for this small community in a scenic rural area heavily reliant on tourism

“The passion play has a really important role for the community of Oberammergau because everybody participates,” said Andreas Rödl, the town’s 37-year-old mayor, “the people onstage, the people that sell woodcarvings, the people that sell coffee, the hotels and the gastronomy.” Rödl first appeared in the play at age 4, met his wife in the cast in 2010, and this year performs in the choir.

The play is not only famous, but infamous, because it has a long history of antisemitic storytelling and exclusionary casting practices. In the 1930s, Hitler saw the play (twice) and loved it; deep into the 20th century some Jewish characters wore horns. Non-Catholics, including Protestants, were not assigned speaking roles; married women, as well as women over 35, were barred from the cast. Today, those practices have been dropped, and all local children are allowed to perform, but adults can do so only if they were born in town or have lived here for 20 years, a rule that was initially imposed to keep out East Germans fleeing Communism, according to Stückl, who called the restrictions “a stupid tradition.”’

We have a very deep discussion about our belief about Jesus, which as a normal hotel manager I would never do,” said Anton Preisinger, a 54-year-old who runs the Hotel Alte Post, and who plays Pontius Pilate, a role his father also once played. (His grandfather played Jesus.) Preisinger said he can still remember when Pilate was depicted as “a good man who wants to protect Jesus,” whereas now he is portrayed as “a cruel emperor who killed with no reaction.”

All the male Jewish characters, whether they support Jesus or oppose him, wear skullcaps. (At a dinner this month, Passion Play actors and American Jewish college students traded tips on how best to keep skullcaps from falling off.) Jesus recites several blessings in Hebrew, and, in an innovation first introduced in 2010, the entire Jewish community — meaning hundreds of actors onstage — sings Shema Yisrael, the quintessential Jewish prayer. The blood curse has been dropped, and Jesus’ death sentence is pronounced and performed by the Roman government — at one point, Pilate is shown making a slashing motion across his neck as he floats the idea to high priest Caiaphas — with support from some, but not all, in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, gave Stückl an illuminated copy of the Shema prayer during a ceremony attended by the town’s mayor as well as a local Catholic priest and Protestant bishop, saying that Stückl “took a play that was sadly infamous for its hundreds of years of antisemitic tropes and visuals and transformed it.”

In an interview, Marans said the play is not perfect — he still has concerns about the depiction of Caiaphas — but that “the progress is monumental.”

And why does Oberammergau matter? Marans said passion plays have over time been used as “a catalyst for violence against Jews,” and Oberammergau, he said, is “the gold standard” of passion plays. But also, he added, there is symbolic significance for a play staged in Bavaria, which he called “the former heartland of Nazism,” and which, he said, “after the Holocaust did not confront its history of antisemitism and anti-Judaism,” even as Christians elsewhere were doing just that.

This year’s production depicts Jesus as a fiery and frustrated social reformer whose ideas have polarized the Jewish community.

“What’s really important is the story we are telling. The focus is now more on that,” Karaca said. “Still we are always fighting — or talking, discussing — in our village about the rules of participation and the other stuff, but I have the feeling it’s shifted a bit more to the story.”

Stückl said that, given the high number of refugees in Germany, he felt it was more important this year to focus on Jesus’ attention to outcasts than to his challenging of traditional religious practices.

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