The Oberammergau Passion Play -- the medievil vow that became a lucrative tourist attraction -- will begin its once-a-decade run next spring as never before in the play's 350-year history.
The narrarator, to be played in 1980 by Oberammergau Mayor Ernest Zwink, will step to the center of the stage and welcome the Jews in the audience.
"Greetings also to you brothers and sisters of the people from whom the Savior came," he will say. "We here in no way wish to look for guilt in others . . . "
His speech is one of the many changes in the latest version of the Passion Play, a work once praised by Adolf Hitler for its anti-Semitic content and loudly condemned in the late 1960s by Jewish groups.
The forthcoming version of the play, around which life in the tiny Bavarian village of the Oberammergau revolves, owes a great deal to the efforts of Temple University professor Leonard Swidler.
Swidler, professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple, recently visited Oberammergau on a mission for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith.
Like many first-time visitors, Swidler was enhanted by the village -- a place where time is said to have stopped in the Middle Ages, where the mayor wears lederhosen to the office and the major occupation is carving wooden figures of Passion-Play figures for sale to tourists.
"The place is like a picture in a dream," he said. "It is set in a valley in the Alps. Everything is green. Every house looks like it was painted by Walt Disney for the Seven Dwarfs."
Swidler's task was to meet with the villagers and discuss script changes that he and the Rev. Gerald S. Sloyan, professor of the New Testament at Temple, had suggested in a critique of the play they prepared for the anti-Defamation League last November.
A German translation of that study -- on the image of Jews and Judaism in the play -- had been sent to the villagers last year, and Swidler was anxious to learn their reaction.
"The play is very important to them," said Swidler. "It is, in a way, their whole reason for being. After all, whoever heard of Unterammergau, the village across the way that is also very pretty and charming but that nobody ever visits?"
In Oberammergau the Passion Play is not just a religious pageant and a tourist attraction but a political event as well.
Villagers are chosen for roles by secret ballot. Thus Zwink's popularity was fortified by the most recent voting: Not only is Zwink the narrarator, but his son, Rudolf, has the central role of Jesus.
Local custom decrees that only unmarried virgins are eligible for the role of Mary. Any actor who gives a poor performance can expect to hear about it for the next 10 years.
The play dates to 1633, when plague swept through most of southern Germany but miraculously spared Oberammergau. Grateful residents vowed to produce a drama depicting the suffering and death of Jesus once each decade. The text of the play has changed form time to time, but basically there have been two major versions, called the Rosner and Daisenberger scripts, after their writers. In the Rosner version, the devil was the chief villain, but when the Enlightenment -- an intellectual movement emphasizing scientific thought -- swept through Germany in the 18th century, the idea that the devil inspired all evil fell into disrepute.
Still, every good drama needs a villain. The Enlightenment version used in Oberammergau for the past 170 years, found its evildoer in Judaism.
The portrayal of Jews in the play became a source of concern in the decade following World War II, as the play, presented from May to September, became a major international tourist attraction. Next year, half a million pageant visitors are expected; 80 percent of the tickets have already been sold.
In the mid-1950s, as a spirit of ecumenism swept the Roman Catholic Church, its theologians began to voice concern about the blatant anti-Semitism in the play.
"An attempt was made to attack the problem before the 1970 performance, but with little success," said Swidler. "This time, requests for changes met with much greater openness and response."
In the new version, several scenes involving conniving Jewish merchants have been cut, and all unflattering references to the Pharisees, whom Swidler describes as "much-maligned in Christian tradition," have been eliminated. In addition, stage directions no longer refer to the unruly mob that demands the death of Jesus as "the people -- an apparent reference to the Jewish people -- but instead as "the crowd."
Some of the changes, including the addition of the narrator's greeting to Jewish spectators, were made at the suggestion of the villagers themselves.
Swidler attributes the success of the Anti-Defamation League's overture to a number of factors, including the league's decision "to get Catholic theologians, who could understand the issue from the inside," to comment on the script.
Swidler said he and his colleague, Sloyan, "made our arguments not on the grounds that this passage or this passage is going to make Jews feel bad, but rather the passages are in opposition to publicly stated Roman Catholic policy, and these people profess to be loyal members of the church."
Swidler also cited what he sees as "a new spirit pervading Germany now, with people everywhere extremely enthusiastic about discussing Judaism. It is not simply a question of guilt pangs, although that is there, too. There is no doubt the showing of the film 'Holocaust' on German TV recently had a terrific impact. There are seven or eight new recent books out in Germany on the subject of Jewish-Christian dialogue."
Because Swidler and the Anti-Defamation League opted for dialogue with the natives of Oberammergau, rather than confrontation, there were no clashes over freedom of expression versus the rights of minorities.
The problem never came up with the Passion Play. Swidler said, "Because what we were dealing with was not a historical text but script that has frequently been changed, for all sorts of reasons. For example, the 1970 script was 127 pages long, and the 1980 script has 92 pages. The reason for that is that the villagers realized that modern audiences don't like to sit still that long.