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    Bethlehem brought back to life

    On Sunday in Seminole, a church and temple will put on a free, live, interactive production of the town 2,000 years ago.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


    It the day after Jesus was born, and all is not well in the little town of Bethlehem.

    As you approach the gates of the city, desperate beggars and lepers cry for alms. When you try to enter, you will be forced to sign the census -- if you are a man. Women are not worthy.

    As you pass through the gates, you'll wonder whether you made the right choice. Mean-looking soldiers roam the streets looking for troublemakers and people who are not true to Rome. If you walk too slowly, they will sternly urge you to get moving. Ask them a question and they will not answer.

    They have bigger fish to fry: They're looking for zealots.

    Each year, Faith Presbyterian Church in Seminole and Congregation Ohr Chadash in Clearwater combine their efforts to put on a free, live, interactive production of the town of Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago that draws thousands of curious people.

    They come to see the tax collector who shakes villagers down for coins, the families going about their business while donkeys bray and baby lambs and goats nibble food.

    They encounter the innkeeper, who is explaining why there wasn't enough room for Joseph and Miriam (Mary's Hebrew name), and why it wasn't his fault they had to seek shelter in a stable.

    At the synagogue, they see a rabbi who is looking through scrolls seeking answers to the rumor that a baby just born may be the Messiah.

    In the smoky air is the scent of food cooking in open pots.

    Unfortunately, one big star of the show won't be there this year.

    "Gus, the camel, won't be with us," said Barb Mazzei, the show's director. "The Shriners had problems with transportation. Last year he broke down."

    Gus lives in Orlando, and for years the Shriners have brought him to Seminole to participate in the show.

    For the star of the show, Mazzei has lined up three babies, all born last fall.

    "It's a real honor to play baby Jesus," said Mindy La Grande, Faith Presbyterian Church administrator. "They work till they get fussy. Then they rotate them out without people noticing."

    One hundred fifty cast members, many of them students from the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary, work to re-createancient Bethlehem.

    One character actor, a church member, will play a convincing zealot.

    "He's going to get the crowd rolling," said Mazzei. "He's anti-Rome. He tells people not to pay taxes to Rome. He's going to get arrested and beaten a lot. The Roman soldiers put him in a room and you can hear the whack, whack, whack, but they're not really hitting him."

    If you go

    The Bethlehem Marketplace will take place from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Faith Presbyterian Church, 11501 Walker Ave., Seminole. There is no admission charge, but beggars and lepers outside Bethlehem's gates will ask for money. If you give them some, it will be donated to charity.

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