A worthy successor to Shapiro’s stunning 1996 volume Shakespeare and the Jews.
Here, Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.) turns his attention to the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau, famous throughout the world for the passion play it has put on once a decade since 1634. Because the play portrayed Christ’s Jewish adversaries as bloodthirsty deicides (not surprisingly, Hitler was a big fan), it has long aroused the ire of the international Jewish community and embroiled the village in unsought controversy. After long debate, it was decided to revise the text, ridding the script of anti-Semitic elements in time for the 2000 performance. But Shapiro is not interested only in the most recent incarnation of the play—he walks readers through the history of theater in western Europe, introduces the untutored to the Passion narratives of the Gospels, and discusses the evolution of passion plays (the oldest of which are in Latin and date to the 12th century). And he investigates the 350-year history of the Oberammergau play, recounting the Church’s attempt to suppress it in the 1770s as part of a larger effort to quash religious drama. In the 20th century, individual Jews as well as Jewish organizations protested the play (in 1931, for example, Philip Bernstein published an essay in Harper’s declaring that the Oberammergau play, which he had seen the summer before, fed Christian hatred of the Jew). Jewish criticisms of the play gained official currency after the 1965 Vatican declaration Nostra Aetate, in which the Church held that the crucifixion could be blamed on neither all the Jews living in the first century nor on Jews who were born after the death of Christ. Shapiro lays out the complicated story of the Oberammergau Passion play in spare prose, offering readers not just a fascinating microcosm of Christian Europe, but a lens onto larger questions about art and censorship.
But beware: the book may leave you longing to see the play for yourself—and the 2000 production has been sold out for months.