Easter Tsuris – Passion Plays Still Fuel Anti-Semitism

When I was a little girl I had an experience that has stayed with me for years. It was the mid 1950’s and it was Easter week on the last day of school before the Christian observance of Good Friday. As my friend and I walked home we noticed some of the “big kids” standing on the ledge of a retaining wall. When we got closer we saw that these kids who usually just smirked and teased, now had mean looks on their faces and rocks in their hands.

Before we had time run, the rocks were flying in our direction along with words that I’ll never forget. “Get outta here, Jew girls! You Jews killed Jesus!” I was only nine years old so when those boys said that the Jews killed Jesus, I had no idea what they were talking about. But “Get outta here, Jew girls!” – that I understood.

Screaming, crying and bleeding, I sprinted the quarter mile home. While my father washed and bandaged my scrapes, I thought about how he had fought the Nazis during what we called “The War.”  So I said, “Daddy, I know you killed a lot of Nazis but I didn’t know that you killed Jesus, too.”

I’ll never forget the expression on my dad’s face.  He looked so distraught and later, as I remembered the glazed look in his eyes I couldn’t help but think that he was living the Nazi Holocaust nightmare all over again. I recall how he said that he could not believe that anti-semitism had reared its ugly head in his newly adopted country.

“These things happened in Europe,” he said. “They are not supposed to happen here in America!”.  Dad’s memory of the Old Country was spot on. Even today there are pockets throughout Spain, Italy, France and Greece where anxious Jewish parents admonish their children to stay inside on Good Friday afternoon and sometimes through Easter Sunday. These parents know that it doesn’t take much for a mob, often drunk and rowdy, to revive old hatreds.

But it’s not only mob rule that causes us Easter tsuris. Sadly some of these attitudes are played out in polite conversation, fueled by a plethora of films and television programs that erroneously depict Jews as responsible for Jesus’ death. In fact Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg says it best when he writes that many people form their impression of Jesus from television and movies, which in almost every case, make the Jews look anything but good. Long before television and movies, depictions of the “Passion of Christ” were nothing new. There are dozens of dramas that have contributed to anti-semitism throughout the ages, all sharing the theme that it was the Jewish people who are responsible for killing the Christian God.

Rabbi Wohlberg notes that changes have been made, the most significant among them was Pope John Paul II’s proclamation nearly 20 years ago that pointed out that with regard to Jesus’ death there are “erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people.” The Pope emphasized that the myth of the Jews’ alleged culpability for Jesus’ death has circulated for far too long.

Unlike his predecessors, Pope John Paul II saw the damage these passion plays had done, which explains why he took the unprecedented step to encourage Catholics to either edit or excise the dialogue or consider NOT mounting these plays at all. Indeed the drama regularly performed at Oberammergau in Germany, (known to be Hitler’s favorite) was revised by the Catholic Church so that it is now historically correct.  And what correction did they make?  Finally, the Catholic Church listened to its own history and spoke the truth.  The Romans killed Jesus and blamed it on the Jews.

Yet there will be those who say “You must understand, Rabbi, the movies and the programs follow to the Scriptures.”  Possibly, but since there are no eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus, much of what is written is speculation.

We do know that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew and during his adult life he was an exemplary man. If the stories are true, Jesus was an itinerant preacher or prophet who bucked the status quo, which was not the only reason that the Romans hated him. History tells us that while the Roman  army was stationed in Judea, thousands of their soldiers  converted to Judaism. As a result a crucified person was not an unusual sight. In fact it was the punishment of choice for Roman authorities who often ordered it for Jewish citizens who were hung from the cross alongside converted Roman soldiers – sometimes by the hundreds each day.

Yet old attitudes die a slow death. When my grandmother, my “nonna,” came to the United States she was still emotionally shell-shocked from her experiences in Europe. We kept telling her that now she did not need to light her Shabbat candles in the fruit cellar in the basement of her house. In fact my father would say, “Mama, this is America, the land of freedom!” But my nonna never complied. In fact she would just shake her head and say, “ Non sono sicura,” you can’t be too sure.”

Later on, when her English improved and she began to understand issues and ideas, it didn’t matter if she heard about a new presidential candidate or a change in the local bus schedule. Regardless she’d say, “But will it be good for the Jews?” And if she were here today, I can imagine her saying the same thing.  “So you saw the Easter movie shows. Were they good for the Jews?”

So given today’s passion stories, what is an appropriate Jewish response to nonna’s question?  Rabbi Wolhberg, among others suggests that since we’ve just celebrated Purim we can take a cue from Mordechai. According to a Midrash, when Mordechai learned of Haman’s wicked plot, he immediately gathered the children and engaged them in the study of Torah. Think of it. While Haman is spewing anti-semitism, Mordechai’s focus is on education.

So it might be a good time for us modern Jews to do the same. We can take steps to strengthen our link to Jewish traditions and maybe more important we can make a special effort to pass our traditions on to our children and grandchildren. Since it is so easy to become complacent, might the annual proliferation of these passion movies, programs and dramas really be a blessing in disguise? Possibly, especially since every Easter we are reminded that where anti-semitism is concerned, there is still much more work to do.

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots
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