By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
He told them from the start they were hiring a witch.
Milo Shiff had to tell them. He had to make sure they wouldn’t require him to cut his curly, gray-white hair. He had to tell them he couldn’t mutilate the flesh of mammals or birds—which didn’t turn out to be a problem, since they weren’t hiring him for the deli counter. He had to let them know he couldn’t use Microsoft computers—Bill Gates’ ethics conflict with those of Shiff’s deities—and he needed to warn them he used cannabis regularly for religious purposes.
That all was fine—Shiff even passed the drug test—and so six days a week for the past two years, you could shop at Ralphs Fresh Fare grocery store on Irvine Avenue in Newport Beach and hear, overhead, the cheerful, breathy, slightly muffled voice of a real, live witch reciting the day’s specials: Blueberries . . . red-velvet cake . . . whole-body rotisserie chicken, barbecue or herb.
Shiff was happy, and the customers liked the greeter in the big glasses who was paid $8.60 per hour to straighten shopping carts, read specials and, most important, blurt salutations at everyone entering the store through the automatic doors.
But things were less fine in October 2008, when there appeared a wrinkled, green-faced woman—a fake woman—in a pointy black hat, her knobby hands grasping a broom. She greeted customers at the front of the store; most of them didn’t realize they were passing two witches on their way to buy eggs, toilet paper, and whatever orange-and-black items they’d need for their Halloween parties. Moms and dads with little children would stop by the fake witch, at which point Shiff, the real witch, would have to press a button and bring it to life: The head would turn, the eyes would flash, and the thing would begin to cackle.
“Welcome to my home, my little victims—I mean, my little friends.”
Some kids would giggle and reach out at it, while others would stare blankly or wander away. But a good number would burst into tears and hide behind their mommy’s or daddy’s legs.
It’s the ’fraidy-cats who really bothered Shiff.
“I try to get along with other people, and I realize I’m a member of a minority religion,” Shiff says. “But the idea that I, as a witch, am having to not just have this played in my workplace, but to actually be called over and told to make it play its little speech, to train children to be distrustful and afraid of witches . . . It’s like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
And the fake witch’s line about “little victims”: Shiff says you can trace that one back 700 years to the lies spread about witches and other non-Christians during the Inquisition. Jews call it “the blood libel,” and so does Shiff.
“I pointed out to pretty much every manager at the time, if you change that animatronic so it were a rabbi, with the same ugly face and short stature and so on, big nose, with the exact same speech in a male voice rather than a female voice,” Shiff says, “every Jewish-rights group in the area would be all over Ralphs on it.”
The thing stayed up, though, until after Halloween, when it went upstairs to be stored for another year. For Halloween 2009, it came down again, but one of the managers—remembering Shiff’s protestations the year before—placed it in a more obscure part of the store and didn’t plug it in.
Still, it was there. Shiff saw it, and he knew the customers did, too. And he knew the same witch was set up at Ralphs stores across California. Everyone realized the creature was supposed to be a witch. But Shiff is a witch. He has been for decades. And he doesn’t know any witches who look like that. He certainly didn’t know any who talked like that.
And so Shiff began looking into whether to file a complaint against Ralphs with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In December 2009, after some wrangling with department employees, he made his grievance official. Ralphs, he wrote in the paperwork, had created a “hostile, intimidating and offensive work environment.”
To many, his accusations likely sound ridiculous. You can almost imagine him suing Warner Bros. over The Wizard of Oz next. But to Shiff, the offense committed against his religion is very real.
“This is not an isolated incident,” says the Reverend Selena Fox, head of the Lady Liberty League, a national group lobbying for wider acceptance of witchcraft and related religions. “We are tired of being stereotyped.”
* * *
On his afternoon shift one Thursday in February, Shiff, his head down, nudges a row of nested shopping carts into a neat, straight line outside the store. Sensing an approaching human, he looks up and—seemingly before actually seeing anyone—chirps, “GOOD day!”