Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who was present at the first night of this season'sperformances, said, ``It gave me the chills.''
Even after years of serious attempts to revise the world's most famouspassion play to remove anti-Jewish passages, the play remains difficultfor Jews.
The play has been performed roughly every 10 years since 1634, infulfillment of a vow made by the villagers when they were saved from theplague.
In the town of about 5,300, almost 2,000 residents take to the stage foreach performance. Actors must either have been born in Oberammergau orhave lived there at least 20 years.
For the last 30 years, Jews, mainly from the United States, have beenpushing for change.
For this year's performance, the director, Otto Huber, invited Jewishcritics to discuss possible changes ahead of the production and mademany changes in the script to remove its traditional anti-Jewishreferences.
In the past, Jews wore horned costumes, the end of Judaism wasprophesied as a punishment for the denial of Jesus, and Judas wasportrayed as the devil incarnate.
Among the Jewish leaders consulted was Rabbi Klenicki, director ofinterfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. When he read the newscript, he appreciated the writers' efforts to make changes.
But then he saw the play.
In the scene where ``the Jews'' call for Jesus's crucifixion, the scriptcalled for a group of actors to counter the shouts with a cry not tocrucify Jesus, in order to make it clear that not all Jews were againsthim.
``But they were completely overwhelmed,'' Rabbi Klenicki told CatholicNews Service
Not all those who viewed the show took such a critical line. GermanRabbi Henry Brandt admits, ``It's a Christian play for Christians and iseffective as such.''
He said he, too, felt uneasy at the crowd scene, but he emphasized thebig efforts made to put Jesus in a Jewish context: He's called ``Rabbi''by his followers and makes a blessing in Hebrew over wine at the LastSupper, which is clearly modeled on the Jewish Seder meal for the eve ofPassover.
Rabbi Brandt said that in spite of the improvements in the script, heagreed that the visual experience has a different impact.
For example, the political power in first-century Jerusalem seems to liewith the high priest: ``The temple guard is more powerful and betterequipped than the Romans,'' said Rabbi Brandt, adding that does notreflect the reality of the political conditions of the time.
However, he added, ``They're on the right path.''
Toby Axelrod, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee'soffice in Berlin, said she saw this year's production in terms of theefforts of young Germans to come to terms with their past.
Huber, the 53-year-old director, and his colleagues were born after theNazi period and do not ignore that Hitler, who visited the play in 1934,considered it a valuable weapon in his campaign against the Jews.
``The play,'' said Axelrod, ``is like a flawed but loved member of thefamily.'' It had to be changed, but changes had to find acceptance inthe village and be true to the sense of the villagers of what the playwas about.
Father John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theologial Union in Chicago wasnot at a performance, but he was one of a team of eight rabbis andChristian theologians asked by the American Jewish Committee to examinean English translation of the revised script. He remains stronglycritical: The strongest identifiably Jewish figures are clearly evil, hesaid.
Father Pawlikowski said the Oberammergau passion plays are marketedthroughout the world, and that some 350,000 of the 500,000 people whowill see them this year come from the United States.
``The American bishops' conference has issued guidelines for passionplays, and Oberammergau would not fulfill those guidelines,'' the priestsaid. ``If they want to market it internationally, they should meetinternational standards.''
Rabbi Brandt does not agree and is not the only German Jewish observerto resent American interference.
``The play is a German play in a Bavarian mountain village to whichAmericans are welcome. I know what is possible, and in the realm of thepossible a lot has been done,'' he said.
Proposals have been made as to how the play could be improved further.
Three U.S. professors -- Leonard Swidler, Ingrid Shafer and RacelleWeiman -- who came to the first night recommended that theresponsibility and power of the Romans be emphasized further, and thatthere be more similarities in costuming between Jesus' followers andother Jews. They also recommended a Jewish adviser should be availableto consult on the staging and costuming, not just on the text.
Axelrod said she feels that, whatever is done, it should be part of aprocess of developing awareness of the issues among the population as awhole. The anti-Judaism in the play, she said, is part of a traditionthat includes the 11th-century Crusades and the deadly 14th-centurycampaigns against the Jews during the Black Death, as well as the Naziperiod.
She also said she was disappointed that local people among theshopkeepers and souvenir-sellers she asked were not aware of thecontroversy over the anti-Jewish elements in the play out of which theymake their living.