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A Rabbi's Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play, by Joseph Krauskopf, [1901], at

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A Rabbi's Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play

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Decorative title: A Rabbi's Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play



"Let them hear, and say, It is truth."—Isaiah xliiii, 9.

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."—St. John viii, 32.

WHAT think ye of Christ? This question of questions of the New Testament, that has been askedA universal question—"What think you of the Passion Play?" and re-asked countless times by countless people since Christianity entered this world, has had quite a rival in the past year in the question: "What think ye of the Passion Play?" Not a day in Europe last summer but that this question was asked, and answered, almost as diversely as have been the answers to its rival question of the New Testament. And the question has spanned the Atlantic, and has become almost as frequent here as across the seas. Wherever one's having been at Oberammergau becomes known, the very first question is sure

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to be, "What think you of the Passion Play?"

Up to this day, my answer has invariably been an evasive one. I could not praise, Reasons why evasively answered.and I would not condemn. I could not condemn without probably giving hurt to my Christian interrogator; I could not praise without doing wrong to my own people. I felt that an intelligent and purposive answer to so complex a question as this necessitated, as a prerequisite, either an intelligent questioner, one sufficiently versed in Biblical lore, more especially in New Testament criticism, or an unprejudiced listener, one eager to know and willing to hear the truth, the whole truth, no matter whether the truth heard confirm or subvert former belief. Such questioners and listeners being very rare, I believed it wise rather to say nothing than say what, by not being understood, might make confusion yet more confused.

Here in this pulpit, however, I do not feel this hesitancy. Here that preparatory work why And why full answer given herein Bible criticism has been done; here that faculty of listening to stern truth, however destructive it may prove of long-cherished fancies, has been cultivated so long, that one need have no dread of telling one's honest thought for fear of giving offense or meeting with fanatical opposition. Here I even regard it my duty to give full answer to the

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question "What think you of the Passion Play?" For ever since I have seen the play have felt that, while on the one side it is no small compliment to the Jew that a play, it which almost all the actors impersonate Jewish characters, should have attracted, within one summer, one quarter of a million of representative people from all parts of the world, on the other side I know of nothing that could have rooted deeper, among these people, the existing prejudice against the Jew, and spread wider, the world's hatred of him, than this Passion Play of Oberammergau. There were moments, when listening to the play, when seeing one gross misrepresentation of the Jewish people after the other, I felt as if I had to rise, and declare aloud to the thousands that crowded the auditorium, that what they heard and saw, was, as far as it depicted or typified the Jew, unhistoric in fact, false in interpretation, cruel in inference.

But, as taught by Shakespeare, sufferance being the badge of all our tribe, I restrained my feelings, and kept my peace, as we JewsAnother instance of "Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe." have been obliged to do these past eighteen years, obliged to suffer injustice misrepresentation, contumely, in return for having given the civilized world many of its noblest characters, most of its highest ideals, all of its most sacred literature, in return for

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having given to Christianity its life, and all that mankind values best therein. As the train pulled out of Oberammergau, one of the last glimpses I caught of the picturesque little village was that magnificent group of statuary, representing Christ upon the cross, with the Virgin Mary and St. John at his feet, erected by the late unfortunate King Ludwig of Bavaria, on a towering eminence back of the town. That proud monument had a tragic fate. When being carted to its site up the mountain road, the wagon slipped on one of the steep inclines, the statue of St. John fell to the ground, unfortunately upon the body of the sculptor, its creator, and crushed him to death. "How symbolic the fate of the sculptor of that colossal group is of the fate of the Jew!" thought I, as I gave it a last parting look. He it was, the Jew, who was the mighty sculptor of Christianity; his creative genius it was that gave it its colossal dimensions; it was his mallet and chisel that sculptured the towering grandeur of Jesus, and, in return, Christianity fell upon him when on its ascent to eminence, when on its rise to power, and pressed him down, down, and crushed him—not to death, for the Jew is not of mortal clay—crushed him to the dregs of the earth.

But here I am already at the end of the play, and on my way out of the town, when I

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have not yet had a word to say of my gettingArrival in Oberammergau. into the town, nor anything of the play itself, nor of the persons who enacted it. It was a little after the noon hour, one August day last summer, that our train reached the far-famed town of Oberammergau. It needed no conductor to tell us that we had arrived at the goal of our journey, for the bustle and excitement about the station, the crowding and rushing, the calling and shouting in a Babel of tongues, were certainly indicative that we had reached the one village in the world to which such masses of people could flock at one time, and put up contentedly with such meagre accommodations. About the first thing that caught my eye upon alighting was a large train-shed, that towered vast and high above the little cottages of the mountain-encircled town. So large a train-shed for so small a place was rather puzzling, but before an hour had passed, I knew that what I had taken for a train-shed was the theatre in which the celebrated Passion Play had been performed, twice and three times a week, since May, before more than a hundred thousand people, and in which it was to continue to be enacted, the same number of times a week, till the end of September, before another hundred thousand and more.

While I mistook the theatre, I could not

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very well mistake the actors. It required no guide to point them out. The boy that carriedCharacteristics of the village actors. your grip, the lad that drove you to your lodgings, the household that received you at the cottage door, the girl that waited on you at the table, the man that blackened your boots, the woman that washed your clothes, the children that played at her feet, the men that served you in the shops or at the stands, in the restaurant or in the post-office, that tended the sheep and cattle on the pastures, these were all actors, all easily recognized,—the men and boys by their long hair reaching down to their shoulders, the women, as well as the men, by what I might call a Biblical cast of countenance. For so many generations have the people of this town performed this play, during one whole summer in every ten years, as a thank-offering, ever since a certain plague had ceased its ravages in their midst, nearly three hundred years ago, that it seems to have exercised a psychical influence on their looks and manners, on their modes of thought and speech. Their occupation, for an equal length of time, as carvers of crucifixes and holy images, and the omnipresence of such images in that town wherever you turn and look, have no doubt exercised an equal influence on the physical and spiritual nature of these people.

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With a mountain scenery that is almost Palestinian as a background, the village has the appearance of a bit of Judea transplanted into the heart of the Bavarian Alps. The people seem to belong more to the past than to the present. The sound of modern Bible criticism has never re-echoed within their mountain recesses. They are haunted by no doubts, harassed by no unbeliefs, because their faith has never been questioned. One is as much disposed to envy them as to pity them,—to envy the warmth and depth of their faith, to pity their God-given reason completely fettered by blind credulity. There is a seriousness in their faces that is striking. They who impersonate noble parts do not only act their parts on the stage, they live them, and live them in their daily lives. Anton Lang, the village potter, and Anna Flunger, the postman's daughter, seem as much the Jesus and Mary off the stage as on it. They play neither for entertainment nor for profit. They have again and again refused tempting offers to perform their play at Vienna, Paris, New York. It is not a matter of gold with them, but of religion.

They have their ambitions, like other people, but no ambitions of a worldly nature. Their fondest hope is to be found worthy to play a leading part in the Passion Play; their highest ambition is some day to play the part

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of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary. For these parts the children seem to be trained from their very cradles. Life has no higher object; heaven itself can have no higher honor. If we could read the hearts of the Oberammergauan mothers, I have no doubt but that we would find graven there most fervent prayers that they might live to see their children either as Jesus upon the cross or as Mary or John at his feet,—just as the pious mother of Israel of old was in the habit of praying that the expected Messiah might be vouchsafed to her, or, if a daughter be born instead, that she might be worthy of becoming the Messiah's bride; just as she trained her boy with the utmost religious care, not knowing at what moment he might make his Messiahship known, and enter upon the redemption of Israel. It is said that when word was brought to Josef Mayr, who had played the rôle of Jesus three consecutive decennials, that a younger man had been chosen for that part, his heart was almost broken, and, to save his life, they had to create for him a new part, the Choragus to each of the seventeen acts, It is said that an Oberammergauan maiden will rather forego marriage than risk losing the privilege of impersonating the coveted rôle of the Virgin Mother of God, since a married woman is not permitted to take that part. I verily believe that if the

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[paragraph continues] Parliament of Bavaria were to come to some of these villagers, and give them the choice between becoming King of Bavaria or playing the part of Jesus in the Passion Play, they would answer without a moment's hesitation: "Rather one day the rôle of Jesus than a lifetime a real King."

It was certainly a strange experience for me to mingle with so many saints and heroes of the Church, to break bread in the houseStrange experience, that of mingling with Biblical characters. of him who impersonated Jesus, and with his father, who enacted the part of King Herod; to see and meet there the villagers representing characters which we are accustomed to read of in our Bible, or hear mentioned in churches, or see painted on cathedral walls to meet them in their everyday character as carvers, carpenters, herdsmen, milkmaids,. weavers, blacksmiths, traders, and behold them the next day with crowns and tiaras upon their heads, with silks and satins and gold and tinsel upon their bodies, walking and talking on the stage with a grace and eloquence worthy of the most distinguished actors. It was certainly novel for me, and another Rabbi who was with me, to chat for hours with Andreas Lang, who impersonated, in the play, the part of the Rabbi. He was quite astounded to learn that he had spent the evening with two real Rabbis, and no Jews ever having lived in that town (and

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only about half a dozen Protestants), he was probably as much surprised to find us different from what he expected a Jew to be, as we were pained the next day at the bitterness with which he enacted the part of the Rabbi. He related to us that two English ladies had refused to remain as lodgers at his house, upon learning that it was he who so persecuted Christ; and he told us of the feeling that had been displayed against Gregor Lechner, who for two decades had enacted the part of Judas, as his father before him had done, people actually treating them as traitors, refusing to lodge at their house, often even recoiling from their touch. When this Lechner was asked whether he was training his little son to play that part some day, he answered, "God forbid. I love my child too much to bring the same sufferings upon him which I and my father before me have been obliged to endure."

When I left my genial informant, I pondered on this display of bigotry, and wonderedWhen mere impersonators of Jewish characters are hated, what wonder that real Jews should be hated? not that the world, believing the Jew to have really performed the evil things falsely charged against him in the New Testament, should have been, and should still be, so bitter and cruel against him, seeing its bitterness and prejudice even against those who simply enact such parts in a play. And on the following evening I could not but think

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that had I not conversed the night before with Andreas Lang, and had I not found him a kindly and intelligent man, I might have been led to judge of his nature by the bitterness of his impersonation of the Rabbi; and I well understood why so many Christians, who do not know us as we really are, who do not meet us, or hear our story, judge us by what they see recorded against us in Christian Scriptures, by what is taught against us in Christian Sunday-schools, by what is preached against us from Christian pulpits, by what is published against us in Christianized literature.

The dawn of the following morning threatened a rainy day. We were not surprisedOpen air performance given despite the rain. nor disappointed, having learned by experience that rain is the rule in Alpine regions, and having been told that almost two out of every three performances are given, without the omission of a single scene or line, with the rain descending on the unsheltered stage upon, at times, hundreds of actors; for there are scenes in this Passion Play in which nigh unto eight hundred persons, half of the population of the little village of less than three hundred houses, take part, from the hoary-headed sire, bending heavily on his cane, to the infant in arms. We were thankful that enough of the spirit of advance had penetrated this mountain-village to have moved

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them, for their last year's play, to the construction of a covered shed, so that the thousands of spectators, uninured to mountain storms, might be enabled to enjoy the play, free from discomfort or ill effects. It did worry us at first to see the rain pouring down upon the artistically and, at times, gorgeously robed players on the stage, but as they did not seem to mind it in the least, we gradually ceased troubling ourselves about their enacting Scriptures for us in the midst of a drenching rain. If their regard for tradition is so great that they will not stretch a roof over their stage because their fathers before them never had such shelter, if their conservatism is so very rigid, it seemed a waste of sympathy to extend it where none was wanted.

The town, wakened by the sweet chimes of the church, was astir early, for the play The audience.commenced at eight o'clock sharp, to last, with an hour and a half intermission at noon, till half past five in the evening,—certainly a hard day's work to follow a play eight hours long, in a thronged hall, on a small, wooden seat, in a cramped position. But we had not come for comforts; so there was no one who complained, either before or after. It was one of the best-natured crowds I ever saw, and certainly one of the strangest. From the railroad station, down the mountain-sides, out of the cottages, from every street and lane and

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pathway, the people streamed toward the hall, in all sorts of attire, speaking all kinds of languages, displaying all sorts of physiognomies, representing all sorts of classes and conditions:—lords and cardinals, bishops and priests, Jews and Gentiles, generals and privates, merchant-princes and venders, for all I know, probably also kings and queens incognito. Some came on horseback, some in touring-coaches, some in liveried carriages, some in hay-wagons; some who had breakfasted, and some who enjoyed their breakfast while marching along, a glass of beer in one hand, an opera-glass and a sausage in the other.

Though five thousand people crowded to the doors, there was no confusion in entering, none in finding our seats. It did not takeThe play begins. long for the vast hall to fill to standing-room nor long for the play to commence. Exactly at eight o'clock the second cannon-shot rang out, and almost immediately the mystically-quaint strains of an invisible orchestra resounded, and from the right and left of the stage, thirty-five men and women, beautifully attired, filed in as a Chorus of Guardian Angels, to enact the Prelude.

If you can imagine this auditorium three times its size, its roof coming to an end just above these front seats, thus making the hallThe theatre and the stage. enclosed on three sides, and entirely open

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in front—the fourth side; and if you can imagine this pulpit platform to be about one hundred and fifty feet wide, constituting the stage, entirely uncovered and separated from the hall, and in the centre of this vast platform, toward the rear, a covered and curtained stage, a stage upon a stage, in which the tableaux and special scenes were enacted with changeable sceneries; and if you can imagine a passage-way running from the rear, at right angles to each end of the uncovered platform, representing picturesque streets of Jerusalem, and each of these passage-ways flanked at the terminal, on the platform, with a residence, one the home of the Jewish High Priest, Annas, the other the home of the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate; and, back and over all this artificial scenery, the natural towering ranges of the rugged, often cloud-capped Tyrolese Alps,—if you can picture these to yourselves, you will have some conception of what the place looked like in which the Passion Play was enacted.

If, in addition, you will picture to yourselves each of the seventeen acts introduced by The manner of presentation.the Chorus of Guardian Angels, telling in beautiful Recitative, accompanied by the orchestra, the spiritual lesson taught by the act about to follow, and each Recitative followed by the Choragus, the speaker of the Prologue, describing, with the aid of one or

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two most artistically rendered Tableaux, the presumptive foreshadowing in the Old Testament of the dramatic scenes of the New Testament,—enacted immediately after the exit of the Chorus and Choragus,—if this you picture to yourselves, you will have a conception also of the manner in which the Passion Play was performed.

Up to the commencement of the Prelude I felt the keenest enjoyment in having come, in the strange sights I had seen, in theBad impression the moment the play began. quaint and interesting people I had met. But from the moment the play began, the enjoyment ceased. I had resolved to look at the play as a sightseer, not as a critic. I had thought I could deceive myself, but I soon found I could not. I had made myself believe that I had come as a tourist, to look at the Passion Play as I might look at any other spectacular performance, as I might look at the William Tell play in Switzerland, or at the Hiawatha play in Canada. But I could not. The moment the play began, and the opening hymn was sung, and the opening lines were spoken, the tourist turned critic; the traveller, theologian; the cosmopolitan, Jew. The moment the Prelude began to tell us that we are under the curse and wrath of God, and that atonement and salvation can be found only in the blood of His incarnate Son; the moment the tableau of the expulsion of

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[paragraph continues] Adam and Eve was presented, to teach that Paradisian happiness will be forever barred to us if we do not open our obdurate hearts to the belief in the only Saviour; the moment we were told of the sweet airs of peace that breathe through the world since God's only-begotten Son was sent to earth, commissioned, by his own pre-ordained death, to take upon himself the sins of human kind,—that same moment the unyielding Jew within me rose to his full height, to assert anew his deathless allegiance to that pure form of monotheism from which our fathers never departed, not even in darkest ages and under direst cruelties. That same moment there came a vivid remembrance of cruel wars that had been waged in the name of the Prince of Peace, and of the wars waged by Christian nations, in China, South Africa, in the Philippine Islands, even while the thanksgiving hymn was being sung by the Passion Players because of the peace the only-begotten Son of God had brought into the world. That same moment I distinctly heard the agonizing cries of my unfortunate fathers, who, throughout many dark and cruel centuries, were given the choice between either believing in Hint who had suffered and died for the salvation of human kind, or suffer and die for not believing in Him; who were subjected to cruelties, such as find no equal in the bloodstained

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tomes of history, for refusing to subscribe to a dogma that scripturally is unfounded, theologically contradictory, philosophically irrational, scientifically impossible.

And when, immediately after the Prelude, Jesus made his appearance upon the stage, in that fateful entry of his into Jerusalem;Its powerful anti-Jewish influence shows necessity for counteractive teaching. and when the hatreds and conspiracies against him were set in motion, in which his brother Jews are represented in an infamous light, and in which the grossest violence is done to Jewish history and laws, to make the innocent Jew responsible for the Roman's guilt, to heap the blackest crimes upon the defenseless Jew so that the cruel Roman might be vindicated,—I perceived clearly that it was not for entertainment I had come, but for present discomfort and for future work. I had heard of the emotional and hysterical outbreaks on the part of some of the spectators at the sight of the outrages perpetrated against the Jesus of the Passion Play; I had heard that some had been so wrought up by the play as to become temporarily insane, and run about town haunted by wildest hallucinations, and I could readily understand why; and I could also imagine the kind of feelings against Jews that hundreds and thousands of these spectators would take home with them to all parts of Europe, and to distant lands across the seas,

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as a souvenir of Oberammergau. Many an one, I felt, had brought his craft of credulity into the dry-docks of Oberammergau, much the worse for its having been tossed and beaten by the tempestuous seas of modern research, and was having it overhauled, was having its leaky places pitched, its ropes stretched, its masts reset, its sails mended, its bolts tightened, ready for a cruise of another decade of years in the waters of blind belief, for another decade of years never to think it worth his while to hear the Jew's story, to hear the Jew's version of what is recorded against him in the New Testament, of what is enacted against him in the Passion Play of Oberammergau.

And when afterwards I learned how the play had affected some Jewish people who hadShow necessity for equipping Jews with knowledge of true history. witnessed it, how they felt that but for their being Jews the Passion Play might easily have led them to hate the Jew ever after, how they instinctively felt that our history and our laws were being misrepresented in that play, and deplored that they had not at their command the knowledge with which to answer the charges made, with which to clear themselves of the guilt accused,—I recognized yet clearer that it was not for pleasure I had come, but for work. If the Jew does not defend himself, or cannot, how should the Christian know that he is wronging him? If

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the Christian can go to so much trouble in portraying unhistoric Jews, to the detriment of the Jew, shall not the Jew make known the real historic Jew? With a quarter of a million of intelligent adults from all parts of the world, who saw the play last summer, thinking now more or less unkindly of the Jew,—and it can not well be otherwise,—with probably thousands of them now talking and preaching and lecturing on the Passion Play in all parts of the world, with the aid of magic lantern, cinematograph and panorama; with thousands of newspapers and magazines publishing illustrated accounts of the Jew's cruelty toward Jesus, shall the Jew look on silently, and not say a word in his defense, and not publish a line that might cause if even but a few to know the Jewish version of the story, that is so realistically, yet so unhistorically, presented on the boards of Oberammergau?

From the time of Christianity's rise to power till the days of the Reformation, forThe Jew being now permitted to speak, his duty is to make his innocence known. more than a thousand years, the Jew could not tell his story without paying the penalty for it in the torture chamber, upon the scaffold, or at the stake. From the days of the Reformation to the dawn of modern Bible criticism, he was permitted to speak,—but only in whispers, and only in the hearing of those to whom truth was authority, and not authority

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truth. In these days, however, when, thanks to Strauss, Renan and their noble confrères, the Jew may speak freely, and loudly, and in the hearing of all the world, all that he has to say in his own defense, he must speak, or he must cease grumbling at being misunderstood.

Once the Jew shall know and tell his story, which the world, in these days, really wants Once the true story known the long persecuted will be the honored of hear and know, and many a dark cloud will disappear, many a grievous error will vanish, many a long-enduring wrong will be righted. Once the Jew's truth shall be known, and he will not only be permitted, but will even be asked, to take his stand as a man among men—more honored than most for the greater services he has rendered; to take his stand as a brother of Jesus—more honored than the worshipper of Jesus, because of the greater homage he has rendered him by speaking of him as an exalted human being, not as a Being Divine; as a godly preacher, not as a preaching God; as a masterly divine, not as a Divine Master; to take his stand as a son among the sons of God—more honored than most, because of his life-long battle to keep his One God, the God of the Decalogue, free from the accretions of heathen temples, free from the admixtures of pagan pantheons.

Next: II. In the Forenoon