Ever since I was a child, I have been sure of two things: 1) I want to be a witch and 2) my family is different.
The two threads were not unrelated. I was attracted to the world of witches because of their unapologetic confidence in what made them different. They weren’t just proud to be strange —they drew power from it. Something I desperately craved.
As a nice Jewish girl from Northern California, I was fortunate to have a community that offered me the space to explore and connect with my identity. And still, growing up Jewish meant that I was often on the outside looking in. When my family was buying lamb shanks and burning all of the bread in our house the rest of the world was dressing in pastels and throwing garden parties with a large stuffed rabbit.
But if being Jewish wasn’t enough to make me feel like an outsider, I was also the kid on the block with three parents, all of whom are gay. As I’d learn later around my 16th birthday, I was the first kid in California to legally have three parents. Cool? Yes. Wildly different? Double yes.
Feeling like the odd one out amongst my peers was both isolating and integral to my identity. Back then, there were few places I could turn to see me, my family and our life reflected back as “normal.” In truth, the media landscape of the 1990’s was in many ways a diversity desert. To see Jewish life on the screen I had “Seinfeld,” Fran Fine and those two episodes of “Rugrats” that my mom would pop into the VCR each year like clockwork. But when it came to representation of queer family life, there were even fewer options. And representations of Jewish, queer family life? As I write this I can’t think of one major movie or TV show from that time that centered around a family that looked like mine.
Except for “Practical Magic.”
For those astute readers thinking — Hey, there are no Jewish or queer characters or plot lines in “Practical Magic!” — well, technically, you’re right. The 1998 film is neither explicitly Jewish nor explicitly queer (though it is based on the novel of the same title by Jewish author Alice Hoffman). But for a young Maya, it was a secret celebration for kids like me who were anything but “normal.”
The first time I saw “Practical Magic” I instantly felt at home. Its story revolves around Sally Owens, a young witch played by Sandra Bullock, who lives with her two aunts. Her aunts, enchanting women with long flowing locks and jewel-toned kaftans, looked nothing like my two moms. And yet, the way they defied convention reminded me of my childhood. Sally’s aunts served dessert for breakfast, danced under the full moon and brushed aside slurs from goyishe townies dressed in almost head-to-toe khaki. My moms twirled to Bonnie Raitt in our living room, fried cheese blintzes for dinner and never seemed to care what the outside world thought of how they looked, loved or raised their family.
Early on in the film, we see Sally and her sister get taunted by the local kids. They chant “witch, witch, you’re a witch!” at the girls as they cower on the ground in tears. Then their Aunt Frances, played by Stockard Channing, says: “It’s not that they hate you, it’s that — well — we’re different.”
Different. I knew what that felt like. I still know what it feels like.
As Sally grows up, the locals continue to misunderstand her family. “They make placenta bars,” the normie non-witches whisper. “They’re into devil worship!”
I remembered the time a boy looked at me quizzically after I told him I celebrated Hanukkah and then gulped when asking me where my horns were.
Misunderstood, I knew what that felt like. I still know what it feels like.
In the film’s opening scene, we’re introduced to the Owens’ ancestral matriarch Maria, just as she’s about to be hanged. But before she uses her powers to escape, Channing’s melodic voice explains that: “For more than 200 years, we Owens women have been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong in this town.”
Hadn’t my ancestors also been blamed for everything that went wrong over the centuries, from the Black Death to Germany’s economic downturn after World War I?
Watching the women of “Practical Magic” navigate their outsider status with unbridled self-assurance gave me hope. I wanted to be like them. They were beautiful. They were powerful. They were the women I wanted to sit down with at dinner.
In my eyes, these witches had it made. They could cast spells for amusement or self-protection and rocked the hell out of a velvet minidress. But throughout the film, Sally still aches for what she calls a “normal life.” She looks at the non-magical folk in her town the same way I look at non-Jewish folk who don’t have to fast or atone on Yom Kippur.
When Sally’s character cries, “All I want is a normal life,” I realized that I, too, had often wondered what it would be like to live a “normal” life. To have a family that matched the descriptions on Hallmark cards, to not have to explain my beliefs and traditions to the outside world or defend my humanity in times of tragedy. But soon enough, the fantasy of fitting in gets eclipsed by the reality of what makes me — and my family — magic.
I make a point to watch “Practical Magic” every spooky season, and every time I hear Aunt Frances ask Sally: “When are you going to understand that being normal isn’t a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage,” my heart lifts. I remember that the things that set me apart from the herd, my beautiful and unusual family and my Jewishness, are the same things that have shaped my strength of mind and spirit. I can draw power from my differences — and that’s magic.
Late Take is a series on Hey Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail email@example.com with “Late Take” in the subject line.