The Story of a Boy and His Witch-Aunt
By Mia Martos
Shimshona remembers well when the boy was born. It was a warm summer day, and all the women of the family were hot, practically dripping in pools of their own sweat. That’s how the sisters were back then: whatever one of them experienced the others experienced as if it was happening to them. When Shimshona’s sister, Diane, screamed in labor, her sisters all clutched their stomachs. When Diane’s baby arrived, the women’s shouts filled the corridors of every house in their family, of every room in the synagogue. But the women’s celebration was nothing compared to the men’s. The sisters’ father, who had been waiting a whole generation for a boy, was pouring schnapps at his morning minyan.
“Baruch hashem, we did it,” he said. Finally, after four daughters, he could make a bris, even if it was for a grandson. The boy was given the name Daniel.
The sisters did what aunts do. They brought cakes and balloons and blue outfits and witch hazel; they commented on how beautiful he was, how smart he would be, how perfect the world was now. When the boy Daniel slept in the house, everyone removed their shoes and spoke only in whispers. When the boy Daniel recited his divrei Torah homework at the Passover Seder, everyone listened in complete silence. When he received his first A, the test was framed and hung in the vestibule. Although Daniel’s mother would deliver six girls after him, none would ever be greeted with quite the same fanfare.
On the day he was born, Shimshona closed her eyes and took a breath before she blessed her nephew. What will become of you, little Daniel? she wondered. She summoned all the angels, asking them to bestow special protections on the boy. He was, after all, a special gift to her father and to the other males of the family, who, she reasoned, were right to welcome one of their own. It was an opportunity for her father to reproduce himself, so to speak, like on a photocopy machine. All the effort her father exerted in his life to be a Good Jewish Man — all the praying, all the waking up early to learn his layning, all those shul meetings, all those business lunches — he now had someone to teach it all to. At one time in her life, Shimshona had thought that he would teach her to be a Good Jewish Man. He used to joke that she was so smart she was the closest thing he had to a real son. But that stage passed. Shimshona could not exactly recall when he stopped doing that — maybe when she started developing breasts. She opened her eyes and walked away from the boy.
Shimshona did not know when she became a witch. For most of her life, she’d never really thought of herself as a witch. She was, well, just a feminist. A religious feminist, actually. That’s what she called herself. She put her energy into helping women find their power, using whatever spiritual tools she had at her disposal. Like Shimshon, her namesake, she had an affinity for fire and playing with animals, and she sported thick locks of hair flowing down her spine. Also like her namesake, she spent many years trying to run away from her superpowers. She did not at first know what to do with them. At times she was startled to discover what she was capable of. She found she could speak to people and persuade them of all sorts of things. But mostly, she had a special gift for helping women hear their own voices. It was one of her brothers-in-law, she believed, who first used the word “witch” to describe Shimshona. At first she was startled, but then she liked it. And the man didn’t even know half of her powers.
Of course it wasn’t long between the time she received the label and her first experience of hate. Yes, the haters were swift to come. After all, once she accepted her title as witch, she inherited a history of persecution to go with it. The attacks took many strange and new forms that her witch ancestresses may have recognized. Sermons were dedicated to eviscerating the witches. Shabbat lunches became opportunities to spread the mission of “destroying the evil witches from our midst.” Children, especially the religious boys, hung on every word.
Daniel grew to be “a fine boy” as his grandfather would say. “A beautiful boy,” his grandmother would say. “Girls will be fawning all over him.” He was, in fact, very popular in school, although more among the teachers than among the girls.
Daniel was also a precocious boy. He read encyclopedias for fun and loved to study the weather. He and his grandfather would sit every Shabbat and study the Torah portion, but not before spending fifteen minutes analyzing the weather patterns that week. The grandfather would eat chocolate babka that the grandmother served and marvel at the boy’s genius. “It must be in the genes,” he would say, laughing, not entirely joking.
One of Daniel’s teachers, a man named Pesach, who was beloved by many parents for his special way with the boys, was especially impressed with Daniel and took Daniel under his wing. Pesach had a trim black beard and tucked his black side curls behind his ears. (He didn’t want people to get too intimidated by how religious he really was, he told Daniel in secret.) Pesach spent long hours studying, and was considered — at least by himself — a master of halakha, Jewish law. However, when he was not studying, he was hanging out with his students, listening to Jewish rap music. Still in his mid-20s, he was not much older than his students, and they were attracted to his youthful energy — and his ability to talk.
Boy, could Pesach talk! He would give lessons to his students that kept them rapt — laughing, nodding, raising their hands — and chatting about them for days afterwards. He talked to his boys about all the topics that they wanted to hear about most: girls, dating and sex. He taught boys about what girls liked and wanted to hear. Of course he told them that it’s forbidden to touch girls before marriage. But he did it in a way that was cool and funny.
“He keeps the boys engaged,” Daniel’s grandfather would say. “He has that special quality of charisma.”
His gifts also included writing. His blog was read by thousands, including Shimshona herself. It was called True Torah and covered not only standard topics like the rules of Shabbat and keeping kosher, but also some taboo topics like sex, which made him especially popular. His boys believed that he was the experton girls. “Treat girls gently,” he was fond of saying. “They are like delicate flowers, like princesses. They are not designed to handle excess power.” The fact that he himself was still single and dating gave him even more credibility. They loved him.
Shimshona encountered him once by chance. She’d gone to the yeshiva to meet her friend Sophia for lunch. (A fellow witch, actually, who was working as a guidance counselor in the yeshivah). She peeked into a classroom and saw her nephew listening intently to his teacher. She tried to get his attention, but he was too focused on the teacher, Pesach — Rabbi Winter, his door said. She opened the door just a crack to hear more, and then all the boys heard the noise and turned to look at her. Rabbi Winter looked irritated at the interruption, and Daniel looked mortified. Shimshona apologized profusely and closed the door. After that, she tried not to think about Rabbi Winter, since she did not want to pry into her nephew’s life and relationships. But she had a flash of an image of him, standing on a soapbox. She smiled briefly and then got a chill, but quickly put it out of her mind. This person was none of her business. After that, she did not read his blogs or follow his activity. She just kept doing her work.
The family was proud of Daniel, and believed that he, like Pesach, was destined for greatness. “He’s a born leader,” Shimshona’s father would say about the boy to those around the Shabbat table, and Daniel glowed with the pride of being Chosen.
“And isn’t he handsome?” Shimshona’s mother would say, bringing out the brisket. Shimshona had her eyes closed. She did not eat meat.
Anyway, she was busy with her own work. Women needed her. Although people called her a witch, she saw herself as more of a healer. She found that there were many women in her community who needed that. She liked to think of her work as a kind of feminist healing. She helped women heal by showing them their own power. She had quite a following of her own. But it was not the kind of following that her father would ever have discussed at the Shabbat table or that the rabbi would have commended from the pulpit. Even as more and more women were healing and finding their power, the men in the community who were writing the sermons did not approve.
Meanwhile, as Shimshona embraced her work, her relationships with her sisters faltered. They stopped being as close as they once were. Diane and the others did not like Shimshona’s feminist healing work with women, which they saw as witchcraft, and their husbands liked it even less. “Does she think she’s better than us?” her sister Rose asked.
“It’s like suddenly she hates the family,” Cheryl added.
Shabbat meals became uncomfortable for Shimshona. Her sisters and their husbands stared strangely at her when she spoke. They commented on her wild hair, on her hippie clothes, on her lack of make-up.
“She’s out of control,” her mother sometimes said.
“What do you expect?” her brothers-in-law would say.
“It’s so embarrassing,” her mother said. And so the sisters drew apart.
But Shimshona still loved her nieces and nephews. She did not see them often, but they were always in her thoughts. She lit candles for them and prayed for them and summoned special angelic protections for all of them. Especially for Daniel. He was, after all, special.
By the time one of Shimshon’s friends warned her of the threat of Pesach’s current blogs, it was too late. The feminist witches are evil and need to be removed from our midst, was the title of one entry, the one that got 35,000 “likes” in three days. And their leader must be removed. Start at the top. Her name is Shimshona.
Shimshona was devastated. Why was Pesach writing about her? She did not understand. Why was he mentioning her by name? When did he even start noticing her? She had had no idea that all this was going on. And why did he think of her as so dangerous? Why was he so scared of her?
She scrolled down the comments. The feminist witches are ruining society, someone named Mark wrote. They are turning women against their husbands, making mothers leave their children.
It’s unnatural, wrote someone named “Leibel etc.”. (Who are these people? Shimshona wondered.) They are distorting Torah. They must be stopped.
Shimshona kept reading, not heeding her witch-sisters’ warnings never to read the comments, until she came to this one. Shimshona is my aunt. Daniel had written it. She is brilliant but dangerous.
Daniel! She couldn’t believe it. Was this real? Did he just write that? Why was he doing this to her? She did not understand.
Nothing made sense. She needed help. So she did what she knew best; she gathered the other “witches.” Together they read Pesach’s words. She did not tell them that her nephew was in agreement and prayed that they would not see his comment.
“This man is declaring war on us!” her friend Erin said.
“We must act,” Sophia added, as she lit candles.
Together the women prayed. They called on the angels and the Shechina for help. They incanted, summoned their powers and drank their special teas. They cooked for each other a kosher vegan organic feast to get the energy they needed for the task at hand. And then they blogged. They blogged and blogged and blogged, drawing on words and powers to reach women and men far and wide with the singular message: Save the religious feminist “witches.” They believed that their keyboards were their most powerful tools.
But their actions were fruitless. Getting power to work requires a true heart. And Shimshona’s heart was not entirely true. She had not been honest with her “witch” sisters. She did not tell them that her nephew was the blogger’s protégé. After all, how does one go about sharing such a thing with one’s closest friends? “My family members think we are all evil and should die!” She couldn’t do it. In fact, she could barely even feel her own powers anymore. She felt her energies draining from her as the whirlwind surrounded her heart. How does one wish one’s nephew ill? She could not do it. So while her witch-sisters were toiling over their save-the-witches campaign, she was inadvertently blocking their power. She didn’t mean to. It just happened that way. Which just goes to show, a woman whose family members hate her is destined for life of torment.
Shimshona thought about calling her sister Diane to whom she had not spoken for some time — not since Diane had confronted Shimshona over one of her incantations. Shimshona had been trying to save Raziel, a former classmate, from her kitchen. Raziel felt trapped there all the time, cooking and feeding and cleaning up after all her children. To enable her to escape the stifling energy that perpetually engulfed her in her home, Shimshona had taken the unusual step of inviting Raziel to her own house in order to do a healing. As she was shaking a sage brush over Raziel to calm her and singing some techinot written by one of her ancestors, Diane walked through Shimshona’s unlocked door, took in the scene and let out a wild yelp that sent the birds flying out of the eucalyptus tree in the front yard.
When Shimshona tried to explain what was happening, Diane screamed, “How can you do that to a woman? Don’t you know that she is doing holy work in her kitchen? Who are you to deprive us of our holy mission?”
Diane stormed out. Shimshona immediately stopped her work and ran after Diane. She begged for her forgiveness, but Diane just kept screaming. “We don’t need you or your feminism! Stay away from us!” Shimshona called her several times over the next two days to apologize, but Diane would not forgive her. That was seven years ago.
Now Shimshona picked up the phone and dialed Diane’s number. Her husband picked up. “Hello?” Shimshona tried to find her voice, but she couldn’t speak. “Hello? Hello?” he asked. She wanted to beg for help. She wanted to say, “Help me! Tell your son to stop doing this to me!” But the words wouldn’t come. She couldn’t even say, “May I please speak to Diane?” It was as if the Angel of Death had dried up Shimshona’s voice. “Who is this?” the man on the other end asked. Eventually he hung up.
Next Shimshona thought of her father. He was the one she really wanted to talk to. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She hesitated. Should she tell him what was happening? Would he care? Firestorms exploded in her heart until, like a volcano, she erupted and called him. “Look what is happening in your family!” she yelled finally, unable to contain her feelings. “You did this! You taught your grandson to hate me! You taught everyone that it’s okay to hate me!”
He listened for a moment before responding. “You’re obviously very upset,” he said calmly. “When you’re ready to stop being so angry, when you’re ready to grow up and stop attacking everyone, call me.” He hung up. What was left of her heart tore into shreds.
There was nothing in her arsenal of prayers and incantations, no secret powers or potions that could stop what was to happen next.
It was not until two blogs later that they came for her. On the night that the blog with the title: Kill the witches! went live, the mob arrived at her house. They dragged her from her bed and beat her with what seemed like rolling pins. As she lay there on the floor, she saw that these were not rolling pins; they were Scrolls of Esther.
Then she saw him. Daniel looked down at her, lying on the ground in a pool of her own blood. He was holding the scissors in one hand and her chopped-off hair in the other. Her beautiful locks of hair. She knew what that meant. After all, it was foretold in her name.
Pesach, standing next to him, put his arm around Daniel in brotherhood. “Baruch hashem,” he said. “We did it.” They turned and walked away.
“So this is what has become of you,” Shimshona said. She closed her eyes and took her last breath.