From the pub to Israel

Inside the café, the bartender makes espresso unaffectedly, while outside a small procession shoves its way through the narrow alley. Five men and women carry a large wooden cross, the others follow them singing. This is not an exceptional sight on the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross in Jerusalem, which on 14 stations leads from the old city to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On their way, pilgrims can rent a cross or buy a crown of thorns. Religion is also a good business in the holy city.

At the beginning of September, another group mingled with the pilgrims, the Jews and the Muslims, who co-exist or more likely exist side by side in this city. For one week, the core ensemble of the Oberammergau Passion Play 2020 travelled through Israel to the places where Jesus ministered and that became part of the legend. Since Christian Stückl staged the Passion Play for the first time in 1990, this preparatory tour has become a nice tradition. Until that year, there were religious lessons in the pub, which Stückl thought was too jejune, since he wants to get to the bottom of the human side of Jesus. The group was accommodated at the Austrian pilgrims’ hostel, which is located directly on the Via Dolorosa. Inside Viennese coffee house culture, outside falafel, pomegranates and hummus. “This is an oasis in the middle of the old city”, Frederik Mayet, one of the Jesus actors, says enthusiastically. “When you step through the door, you are in another world.”

On the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem (Photo: Ursula Huber)

At the Wailing Wall (Photo: Ursula Huber)

One in which religion, in its various forms, plays such a major role as perhaps nowhere else in the world. On Friday afternoon, the religious life culminates in the square in front of the Western Wall: “Below, the Jews pray at the beginning of the Sabbath, above in the mosque, the Muslims meet for Friday prayers and Christian pilgrims romp about in between. That is really unique,” Mayet says. A few hours later, Rochus Rückel, the second Jesus actor, describes a completely different picture: “On Sabbath, all Jewish shops are closed, the sidewalks are folded up. One could never imagine that at home the whole life changes on Sundays. Religion determines everyday life there; it is at the centre of everything.”

Rückel describes himself  as “Christian-religious” and estimates himself “already rather far ahead” in an imaginary “ranking” with his Catholic friends. He had religious education throughout his school years and went regularly to church. Nevertheless, it was only during this trip, he realised how big the topic really is. How much room for interpretation there is. And how much one can relate to the current social situation in our world. “I also never realised that Jesus and his disciples were deeply religious Jews,” he says. “They did not set up a new religion, but tried to live the Jewish faith in its deepest form and to return to forgotten values.” That he now saw the setting of the Passion Play himself, wandered through the steppe landscape at the Sea of ​​Galilee, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount, is helping him to approach his portrayal of Jesus. “Now, when I assemble my story, I have a real picture of the location in mind. I can imagine what it looked like back then, that helps me to play it authentically,” believes Rückel. Mayet feels much the same. Although, of course, a lot has changed in the last 2000 years: The distances and the views from the Mount Olives are the same. “If you know that, then you go into the play with a different feeling,” says Mayet.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Photo: Monika Frank)

At the Sea of Galilee (Photo: Ursula Huber)

Dome of the Rock (Photo: Monika Frank)

Mount of Olives (Photo: Monika Frank)

Eva-Maria Reiser, who will play Maria, also describes her impressions a bit “like hands-on religious education”. “When you are there, all of this gets a new vividness. We walked through the Arbel Valley to the Sea of ​​Galilee for three hours. If you imagine that Jesus also walked there, that gives you a different feeling of understanding. One wonders automatically: How could that have been at that time?” The long discussions in the ensemble and the shared experiences have incidentally brought the group closer together. A bit like a school trip, except that the age difference between the youngest participant (16 years) and the oldest (78 years) was more than 60 years. “It is also nice that such different generations come together through the Passion and you approach people with whom you have little to do in everyday life,” says Reiser. Because of course, there was also time for private explorations and a mandatory bath in the Dead Sea. “Of course, this is a must-do for those who have not experienced it,” says Mayet. “And it's just amazing when you try to swim and barely get your legs underwater.”

Hiking tour through the Arbel Valley (Photo: Ursula Huber)

Conversation with Abba Naor (Photo: Frederik Mayet)

In addition to exploring the landscape, there were also some encounters that have left a lasting impression on the travellers. Above all, the conversation with the Holocaust survivor Abba Naor has left a deep impression. “Asked if those responsible should be held accountable today, he replied: Why? They are over 90 years old; they may have become good grandfathers and great-grandfathers. He does not need retaliation,” says Reiser. “There have certainly been other moments in his life, but I find it very impressive that he has come to this point.” Naor basically lives the love of one’s enemies preached by Jesus: “I asked him if he still feels hatred,” says Mayet. “He said no. He wants to break the hatred and does not want to pass it on to his children. You only have one life, he said, and life is a great thing, so make use of it.”

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photos: Ursula Huber, Monika Frank and Frederik Mayet