Pam Grossman is a Jewitch. Raised in a Jewish family in New Jersey, her journey into witchcraft began as a child and continued as she got older. Grossman hosts “The Witch Wave,” a podcast that dives into magic, witches, and culture. And now, she’s written a book, Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power, that dives into the cultural and historical impact of witches on society.
Grossman makes a case that the witch is “the ultimate feminist icon because she is a fully rounded symbol of female oppression and liberation. She shows us how to tap into our own might and magic, despite the many who try to strip us of our power.” I recently got the chance to chat with her about her favorite witches in pop culture, how she combines her Judaism with her Paganism, and what her family thinks about it all.
Why did you decide to write Waking the Witch?
I love the archetype of the witch. It’s an archetype that I’ve embodied in my own life, for several reasons, and there really wasn’t a book that blended together the history of the archetype with cultural analysis as to why witches are seemingly more popular now than ever, as well as personal memoir. So my book is an attempt to do all three of those things.
I feel like a lot of people come to witches through pop culture, which is obviously such an important part of the book, too.
That’s exactly right. And of course I’ve watched tons of witch movies and shows, and read lots of witch books, throughout my life.
Who are your favorite fictional witches? I’m sorry, I’m sure you that question all the time.
I do, and you would think I would just immediately have an answer… I mean my favorite book when I was a kid was Wise Child by Monica Furlong. There’s a witch in that book named Juniper, who I love. Even though the villagers think of her as diabolical, she’s actually so loving and she knows the magic of nature. She’s probably my all-time favorite.
What about in TV or movies?
I mean, I love Gillian Holroyd in the movie Bell Book and Candle. It’s a film from 1958. She’s this glamorous witch in Greenwich Village, New York, and I just love her style and she’s intelligent. She goes after what she wants, but she has that glamour to her.
And I have to say, I’m really loving the newest version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch — The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix. I love that she’s a feminist and a free thinker and that she has more concerns than just crushes and passing a math test. She’s really fighting for her own liberation and for the liberation of all the other vulnerable and marginalized people in her life. And I think that’s a pretty great message.
You write about how you were raised Jewish, but now you practice modern Paganism. Can you talk a little about this journey?
I still identify as Jewish as well. A lot of people like me call ourselves Jewitch. I was very fortunate in that the synagogue that I was brought up in was very progressive. When I was a kid, I remember that our prayer books got swapped out with gender-neutral prayer books. Suddenly, God was just God — it wasn’t “He” anymore. And we had Rebecca and Leah and Sarah added to our prayers, and it made a really great impression on me. It showed me that spirituality is fluid, and it can evolve, and it’s not just something that’s written in stone.
And of course, Judaism has a lunar calendar. And there’s a lot of mysticism in kabbalah. It’s really a religion that’s about study, reading, and scholarship, and that is certainly something that’s very near and dear to my heart.
What does your family think about your journey into witch culture?
They’re incredibly supportive. My parents are both artists, and I was raised to think for myself. My mom also goes on goddess retreats to connect to the divine feminine, and my dad meditates. They’re both very open-minded, artistic, sensitive people. So they’ve always been really supportive.
It is and it’s lucky. I know not everybody has that, believe me.
I feel like there’s actually been an effort in Judaism in recent years to more fully honor the divine feminine.
I do, too. Honestly, I wish so much that it happened when I was a kid.
My grandma Sonya got bat mitzvahed when she was in her 50s, maybe even her 60s, and my mom got bat mitzvahed when she was in her 40s; they couldn’t do it when they were kids and it was amazing to see them go through that process as adults.
I was born in the ’80s, right on the cusp of a bigger push for honoring the feminine in Judaism. It left an impression on me.
Do you find Judaism compatible with magic and witchcraft, in the way that you experience it?
Yeah, I do. Especially because there are so many holidays in Judaism that are about celebrating the seasons, or marking certain phases of the moon.
One of the rituals that I do every year is combine the pagan holy day Mabon, which is basically witches’ Thanksgiving, with Rosh Hashanah. So I’ll do a pagan ritual, but I’ll also eat apples and honey during it, to usher in a sweet New Year and to celebrate the moon. So I do combine Judaism with my Paganism, for sure.
It’s so interesting. I am not sure, but I’ve noticed that, too. It’s such a tiny little sample size that I wouldn’t want to draw some big conclusion from it.
But I do think the fact that we don’t grow up with a stigma that witchcraft is devilish — the way a lot of people do who are raised in other religions — in Judaism, [witchcraft] is not quite so stigmatized. So maybe that’s part of it. Certainly people of all religious backgrounds practice witchcraft, or sometimes combine [their religion] with witchcraft; you don’t have to stop being something to also practice witchcraft, although some people do.
I mean, growing up, I never thought of witches as bad.
There are certainly bits of the Bible where they say terrible things about witches. Most of it is in the New Testament, but there’s still the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament. She’s not supposed to be practicing any kind of necromancy or witchcraft because it is illegal. [Witchcraft] was definitely frowned upon in the Old Testament, for sure, but it just wasn’t linked with the devil the way that Christianity [did] after the 15th century.
Switching gears, I loved reading about your decision not to become a parent and how all the witch figures you grew up with also didn’t have children. You write about how “the witch’s plot lines rarely focus on the desire to be a mother. She’s busy making other things.” Can you expand on this?
There are certainly witches who have children, and I think motherhood is very magical, so I don’t mean it in a disparaging way. But because witches don’t really get their meaning or their power from a family unit — she has power on her own terms — the witch is really able to forge her own path. That really resonates with me because so many of the narratives that we’re given as females — and this is starting to change — but so many of them are about trying to find love or trying to have a family.
In my experience, I love my husband very much and I love the children in my life, but my goals have always been about making art and making magic and living a purposeful life in other ways. The witch is an independent figure, so that always really resonated with me.
What has the reaction to Waking the Witch been like for you?
Oh, it’s been so nice! People seem to be really connecting to it. My hope is that people will certainly learn something from the book, and enjoy the book, but also that some people will walk away from it feeling like they have the power to make their own magic in their lives. And live a life that is meaningful, even if it’s a little bit unusual.
I mean, we both know the political climate we’re in — any bits of culture that can help women and femmes feel as if they have worth and power within them are really important. We need as many strong people as we can to keep fighting for equality.
If a Jewish woman is interested in exploring witchcraft, how would you recommend she start?
I always recommend Starhawk because she does have that [Jewish] background, but also Spiral Dance is such a classic text about the divine feminine. So that’s definitely a good one. I also love Margot Adler’s book Drawing Down the Moon, that’s certainly a great one for witch history.
But, I would say: Starting to pay attention to the phases of the moon is a really simple way to begin to practice witchcraft. I was taught that the new moon is a great time for setting intentions, planting metaphorical seeds, and starting new projects. The full moon is a great time for letting things go, standing in your power, and being really supercharged. There’s all kinds of other magic you can do with different phases of the moon. So that’s a really simple place to start — and it also goes with the Jewish calendar! Extra bonus points there for Judaism.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. Image of Pam in header by Sylvie Rosokoff.