Visual culture and anti-Semitism

Chester Mystery Plays (Source: Wikipedia)

I grew up in a white, evangelical subculture, a cultural bubble in a city with large Mexican American and African American populations. In the part of Riverside where we lived Seventh Day Adventists made up the dominant minority. They considered those of us outside the fold as gentiles. (Just so you know how important I am, in college I briefly dated a descendent of 7th Day founder Ellen White.)

I did not know any Jews until adulthood. Riverside in the 1970s and 80s had one synagogue (in a city already over 100k in population). Even into the 1970s the most prestigious country club in Riverside still banned Jews from membership. My first real connection with the Jewish community came from developing a Holocaust education program at the Catholic high school where I taught. We worked with the local rabbi, and held a full day of the program at the synagogue. That also put my colleague and I into contact with the Jewish community in L.A. associated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Still, my first real sense of Jewish culture in America came after I moved to New Jersey to study at Rutgers. Seeing Jews, seeing Jewish institutions and getting to know professors and other graduate students who were Jews, all of this slowly developed notions of what it meant to be a Jew and to be Jewish. I freely admit, my sensibilities were still blunt instruments.

All of the above happened passively and largely unconsciously. But I realized even those crude sensibilities existed on a trip to the U.K. in 1987. My (now ex) wife and I drove from London through the length of England into Scotland. In Chester, we stayed at a bed and breakfast where it happened that two Catholic priests were also staying. Over breakfast we got to talking to them about religion, especially about Catholicism in England and Scotland. But we also discovered they were in Chester to see the Mystery Play, a three day event that the city had revived in 1951 (it had been suppressed by Cromwell, of course). So we decided to spend an extra night and to see at least the middle day of the event.

The play took place outside. The audience sat in bleachers, as if for a high school sports event. Props, acting, even script all impressed me. And the final scene, the crucifixion, had the Jesus actor carrying the cross as the audience followed along until he was crucified on the steps of the town hall.

But the scene that impressed me more than any took place when authorities hauled Jesus before the judges of the Sanhedrin. The costumes, the symbolism, everything about the scene emphasized (screamed) that these were Jewish authorities. Even though, as we know, the judges of Jewish law referred the matter to the Romans, this scene in from the Passion drama made clear that it was the Jews who were responsible for what would follow at the town hall. Those minutes of the drama quickly expanded my sense of how profoundly anti-semitism weaves its way into western and Christian culture. Once you see it, you see it everywhere.

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