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Milo the Witch Finds Toil and Trouble at Ralphs

Milo Shiff holds a candle for his religion
John Gilhooley

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!”

 

This is Shiff’s main duty: to say hello to people. And he’s pretty good at it.

“I’m supposed to make sure the customer’s first experience is a positive,” he says. “It’s actually fun. There aren’t many jobs where you’re paid by a big corporation to be nice to people.”

His frizzy hair pulled under a black Ralphs baseball cap and wearing a black apron over a polo emblazoned with CUSTOMER SERVICE on its back, Shiff, 54, seems to have developed his job’s required friendliness into a reflex. Standing outside the store’s sliding doors, he elaborates about his defunct rock band, spellcasting attire and accusations of harassment, all while intermittently throwing a “HELLO!” or “Enjoy your shopping!” at passing customers without missing a beat. A good number of customers return the favor with his name: “Hi, Milo.”

At one point, a woman in a pink sweater walks out of the store, leaving a jug of V8 in her cart as she brings the rest of her groceries with her across the parking lot. Shiff springs into action, grabbing the juice from the cart and hollering at the customer, “I bet you want this!” He flashes a big, crooked smile.

Shiff can talk a lot. Any question to him, no matter how limited its scope, results in a few minutes of explanation. But there’s also a tentativeness to his speech, as if he wants to make sure he’s getting each fact right (even though he sometimes doesn’t; there are not, as he often claims, more witches than Jews in America). He’ll occasionally giggle at what he’s talking about—but usually not for the same reasons as the person to whom he’s talking.

Taking his lunch break at a nearby Pick Up Stix, Shiff—over a spiritually correct plate of brown rice and steamed vegetables—discusses his religion. “Kemetic Witchcraft,” he says, is a tiny sect derived from the religion of ancient Egypt. He casts spells while “sky-clad” (also known as “naked”) in his rented room, lighting candles, speaking incantations and manipulating symbols to effect some change in the world or his life. The Egyptians were known for their love spells—but Shiff’s website, teenwitch.com, bears a disclaimer that he doesn’t oblige people who come “spell” begging. He primarily worships Bast, the cat goddess. As Shiff matter-of-factly explains, he knows her on a personal level.

“One three different occasions, Bast appeared to me in person,” he says. “Not when I’m dreaming, not when I’m in any altered state. The first time was frightening because to suddenly see a 20- or 30-foot black cat in front of you, it’s like, ‘Am I hallucinating? Is this real? Either way, this is scary.’” He says Bast told him he’d been incorrectly worshiping her, so he changed his ways. “Obviously, being visited by a goddess, that kind of influences you,” he says. That’s when he giggles.

He knows society as a whole isn’t laughing with him. When he tells people he’s a witch, most of the time, they respond by saying witches don’t exist. It’s an understandable reaction. After all, most Americans’ exposure to the concept of witches comes from fairy tales, sitcoms and, of course, Halloween decorations.

And it’s hard to pin down a definition for what a living, breathing, practicing witch really is. Plenty of would-be witches don’t want to use the term, preferring to call themselves Wiccan (the Old English word for “witch”), pagans, neopagans or sometimes simply “practitioners of Earth religions.” The belief systems vary from label to label, person to person, but most share a magical view of the universe and a reverence for nature. Shiff, though, wants to be called a witch.

“It’s the correct word in English,” Shiff says. “I understand it has a negative connotation for some people. But if someone calls themselves a ‘Jew,’ that has negative connotations for some people. At what point do you just say, ‘This is what I am’?”

Shiff says he came to Kemetic Witchcraft, which has no unified church, after a good deal of searching. His father’s job as an electrical engineer meant the family (including Shiff, who was born in Garden Grove, and his five sisters) crisscrossed the country. It was in Mobile, Alabama, that he got his first taste of witchcraft, watching with curiosity as his grandmother rearranged stones outside her home. She made him promise not to tell anyone else what she was doing. Moving the stones, she said, would bring her good luck. It was magic.

His father was an atheist and, Shiff says, tried to raise his children to be atheists, too. When Shiff’s family lived in a tiny Massachusetts town for a few years during his childhood, the next-door neighbors were Jewish. Shiff didn’t know that, though, until the day his neighbors awoke to find swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans scrawled across their door. Shiff’s father called him and his sisters to the dinner table and told them what happened. “I want to make it real clear to everybody: Don’t mention to anybody that you don’t believe in God,” Shiff remembers his father saying. “And if anyone asks, say you’re Christian.”

 

That’s how Shiff ended up spending a few years attending church and getting to know Christianity. But neither atheism nor monotheism felt right to him. So in his 20s, he started to dream up his own religion, drawing partly on the things he’d learned from his grandmother. But whenever he came across the ancient Egyptian religion in books or television shows, it seemed true. “I go, ‘This is kinda like what I was trying to create,’” Shiff says. “‘Only already fully developed and richer.’”

His journey toward witchcraft happened in tandem with a career in computer programming. He specialized in “assembly language,” low-level code that is used to make systems work more efficiently. Shiff claims there are still satellites in orbit running programs he wrote. He also says he invented the “Quick Pick” button for California Lottery machines. But with the advent of faster computer systems, the need for assembly-language programmers dwindled—until Shiff’s greatest skill was one the world had no need for.

So, he got the job at Ralphs.

“Most customers know him by name, that should say something right there,” says Zachary Johnson, who has worked at Ralphs since before Shiff started in 2007. He and Shiff chat outside the store after Shiff’s Pick Up Stix meal. “Some people find his overt friendliness comical,” Johnson says after Shiff goes back on duty. “Some people, it’s a little too much for them.”

“He’s the kind of guy who whenever you see him, it makes you happy,” says Din Dalebout, a regular customer. “If he’s a witch, then we need more witches in the world.”

The customer-service environment is certainly different from what Shiff had dealt with before. For one thing, he’d never worked at a business where holidays are merchandising opportunities. And Shiff isn’t cool with most mainstream holidays. The Halloween witch decoration is the most egregious example, but Shiff was also asked to set up displays for St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday named for someone who, he says, was sainted for killing pagans. When he told a manager he didn’t want to complete the task because of his religion, a few co-workers raised eyebrows. Some hadn’t known he was a witch.

Ever since then, Shiff claims, a few of his fellow employees have harassed him for being a witch. Usually, he says, the taunts include the word “evil.”

*     *     *

There’s a term for going public with your paganism: “Coming out of the broom closet.” Like any other “closet” a person might come out of, the person doing the coming out should brace for strange glances and stranger questions.

Jamie Martinez Wood, a Costa Mesa-based Wiccan author, has heard a few of those questions: “‘Do you still fly around on brooms?’ ‘Can you make Lucy Liu fall in love with me?’” she recalls. “People laugh about what they don’t understand. People don’t understand witchcraft. Instead of taking the time to consider it carefully or intellectually, they respond from an emotional, closed-minded thing and just poke fun at it.”

Shiff points out that the religion faces a millennia-old legacy of mistrust from a much larger religion: Christianity. Witchcraft and spellcasting are denounced throughout the Bible—including a few calls for the death of those doing the castings. Pagans speak with solemnity about the “burning times,” when witches were killed, tortured and ridiculed (think Salem). Shiff says that’s why he takes such offense at the animatronic witch’s line about victimizing children: Likely unwittingly, the device’s manufacturer has been forwarding a myth used to justify oppression and murder of witches throughout history.

Fox, based at Wisconsin’s Circle Sanctuary, one of the country’s largest Wiccan churches, sees it in broader terms. “Across the ages, minority religions in a society often have had this harming of children, eating of children, attached to it as part of a way of oppressing minority beliefs,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s being applied to Christians in places where Christianity is a minority faith. Just because this slur is out there, this doesn’t mean any of these groups have done it.”

Fox’s recent victories with the Lady Liberty League include a lawsuit settlement that convinced the military to allow the pagan sign of the pentacle to be inscribed on veterans’ graves—like the cross, the Star of David and the Islamic crescent moon. She says she hasn’t heard of anyone turning to the law to push back against the stereotypical Halloween witch, as Shiff has done, but his intentions aren’t new. At the least, she says, the popular witch image is patently offensive to elderly women. And she compares the pointed-hat, big-nosed image of the witch to the stereotypical red-skinned chief that Native Americans have succeeded in getting removed from many sports stadiums and TV shows.

 

“There have been cases where people have gone to stores and gift shops and asked that the offensive images of the green face be eliminated,” Fox says. “I don’t think anybody would want an image of some Christian saint like that hanging out at Christmas.”

Fox says the pagan cause has made great strides over the past few decades, but still faces opposition. A case currently before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals seeks to allow pagan chaplains into California state prisons. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Correctional Chaplain’s Association have all expressed support for challenging the system’s “Five Faiths” policy, which only allows for Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American chaplains.

On Jan. 27, though, a Christian group called Wallbuilders Inc. filed a brief in opposition. It read, in part, “The Founders did not intend the Religion Clauses to protect paganism and witchcraft. . . . There are, of course, references to ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ among the writings of the Framers, but there is no indication that those belief systems, including polytheism, are considered ‘religion.’”

*     *     *

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has a lot of work on its hands. The agency handles complaints of discrimination, harassment, civil-rights violations and hate crimes in nearly every aspect of life, including—yes—employment and housing. In 2008, the department received 20,074 complaints; in 2009, its actions included slapping fines on a taco company for refusing to let an employee breastfeed her child and on a university that rejected potential employees for having carpal-tunnel syndrome.

Shiff called the department’s Santa Ana office in September 2009 to file his complaint. He says he was told by two employees that because witchcraft is not a “religious creed” or “established religion” under state law, they couldn’t do anything. A few weeks later, Shiff says, they reconsidered, thanks to his repeated urging.

The department won’t comment on the dispute or on Shiff’s account of his dealings with the department, but spokeswoman Annmarie Billotti confirmed Shiff had filed a complaint. Speaking in general terms, she said she didn’t know whether there had ever been a complaint to the department like this before—with a witch objecting to some stereotypical depiction of the religion. But “visual harassment”—an employer subjecting employees to images they find offensive—has been grounds for department action in the past, she says.

Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyle says the company won’t comment on the specifics of ongoing investigations. “We certainly do take all claims seriously, and we investigate them thoroughly,” she says. “Milo is working with the human-resources department with these issues. We have worked hard to accommodate him.”

In January, Bonnie Franco, Ralphs’ director of employee relations, visited Shiff at his workplace. (Calls to Franco from the Weekly were directed to Doyle’s office.) In a side room of the store, Shiff recalls, the two sat and talked over why Shiff had filed a complaint. Shiff says Franco was kind but didn’t seem to understand his concerns, saying the witch figurine was “just” a Halloween display. Shiff says he pointed out that he regularly sees customers in the store wearing jewelry suggesting they were interested in witchcraft —namely, the five-pointed pentacle. Once the animatronic witch had gone up, Shiff claims, those customers stopped coming in.

“She had not heard of the pentacle,” Shiff says. “When I finally got across to her what it was by simply drawing her one, she goes, ‘Well, isn’t that evil? Is the pentacle good or bad?’”

Shiff says he was stunned by the question. “I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I just presented the question back to her. I go, ‘To you as a Christian, is the Christian cross good or bad?’ And you could see this instant look of shock and horror and offense on her face.”

Later in the interview, Shiff says, Franco asked him a question he hadn’t expected: Well, what do you want? It wasn’t something Shiff has thought much about. He muttered a few generalities. Now, though, he says he has considered the question more. And what he wants from Ralphs, he says, is simple: change. He wants the Department of Fair Employment and Housing to use its power to compel the company to change its policies.

“I’d like to have them understand not just my religion, but also other minority religions,” Shiff says. “Realize we exist. Realize that even though they are the mainstream by an overwhelming majority, theirs is not the only religion, that there are other religions and that they need to respect them.”

 

Earlier this month, Shiff spoke again with representatives from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. He says they told him Ralphs was looking to negotiate a settlement on the issue of past harassment from co-workers. But on the issue of the witch display, the agents told Shiff, there was nothing that could be done. The department can’t interfere with a corporation’s “marketing.” They might have been able to do something about a display like that if it had depicted Jewish or black stereotypes, Shiff says he was told. But the case law simply isn’t there for witches.

Catherine Fisk, a professor at UC Irvine’s school of law who teaches classes on harassment and discrimination law, doesn’t see it that way. From the way it sounds, she says, Shiff just might have a case. “In the ordinary harassment scenario, if you intend to force the employee to engage in conduct, even if you don’t know that it’s humiliating to them because of their status or their religion, there’s liability,” she says. “The employer who says, ‘Sure, I make young women dress up in wet T-shirts; I didn’t think that it bothered them’ doesn’t have a defense. So if you analyze the case that way, it seems clear that he has a claim.”

Shiff told the department’s agents he didn’t want to settle with Ralphs if the witch decoration wasn’t going to be formally addressed. He admits, though, that some of his concerns have already been alleviated. At least one employee he said had been harassing him has been transferred to another store. While he appreciated that the witch display wasn’t as prominent this past Halloween, he says, for Ralphs to publicly denounce the witch depiction to which he objects would mean a lot.

“I’m going to push it as far as I can,” he says. “If I can get a Fortune 100 company to make a change, that will help people all over the country. Because we all know change happens one step at a time.”

On Feb. 19, Shiff says, he returned from his lunch break to find John Schroeder, Ralphs’ group vice president for human resources, waiting for him at the store. According to Shiff, Schroeder told him that Ralphs was considering hiring a cultural specialist and that he would recommend the store avoid using witch decorations in the future. Schroeder cautioned that he didn’t have final decision-making authority, but Shiff is hopeful. “He gave me the impression, for the first time, that somebody was taking me seriously,” he says.

*     *     *

Shiff won’t shake your hand; the handshake, he explains, is a holdover from the Christian crusades. When the president of Ralphs wished employees a “Merry Christmas” in a company newsletter, Shiff says he was perturbed, as Christmas was once used as an occasion to harass Jews in European villages. The company’s annual employee-awards party last year was Egyptian-themed. Shiff was aghast at the use of hieroglyphics, which to him are sacred writings, in the decorations.

Shiff admits it isn’t always easy adhering to a religion—and a reading of history—that puts him at odds with the society around him. But Kemetic Witchcraft isn’t the only religion that’s inconvenient. Courts have upheld the rights of religious parishioners to observe their holidays, dress codes and morals in the workplace, as long as it’s to a reasonable extent. But few other groups, Shiff points out, still must contend with anything like the green-faced, child-eating witch—a depiction of their religion that’s both ugly and so ingrained into modern culture that almost no one thinks twice about it.

Even so, a few of his witch friends have rolled their eyes at his quest. That’s one slight Shiff doesn’t much mind.

“Most of them [fellow witches] think I’m kind of wasting my time, that I’m not going to get anywhere,” he says. “They may be right. I may be ahead of my time. But eventually, society’s going to have to deal with this.”

skornhaber@ocweekly.com

 

This article appeared in print as "Toil and Trouble: Milo the witch loves his job at Ralphs. But a Halloween display compelled him to file a discrimination complaint."

 


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