Sisterhood Blog

What 'Hocus Pocus' Taught Me

By Jessie Szalay

  • Print
  • Share Share

For the last four weeks, cable television has been running amok, amok, amok with more showings of the Halloween classic “Hocus Pocus” than you can shake a dead man’s toe at. The 1993 film has become a millennial favorite and to celebrate the fact that it’s been 20 years since the Sanderson sisters put a spell on us, towns around the country have held public screenings, the internet has gone wild with .gifs, and cast reunions have been held. (Omri Katz is as cute as ever).

The Sanderson sisters of “Hocus Pocus.”

I’ve had a bad case of “Hocus Pocus” fever since it came out when I was 10 and my sisters and I trick-or-treated as Winifred, Mary and Sarah. The film follows the trio of witches, who were executed in 1693 and then revived 300 years later, as they try to secure their immortal existence in modern-day Salem, Mass. In addition to being one of my favorite films, the movie is also a great source of Jewish pride. Both Bette Midler (who plays Winifred Sanderson) and Sarah Jessica Parker (who plays Sarah Sanderson) are Jewish. Omri Katz (who plays Max Dennison, the teenager who accidentally resurrects the witches) is the son of Israeli immigrants and Thora Birch (who plays Dani Dennison, Max’s brother) has Jewish ancestry. Even Vinessa Shaw (who plays Allison, the Dennisons’ classmate) is a MOT. There are few things better than a troupe of talented Jews starring in a hilarious film about magical, book-adoring women, loving your sisters,and Halloween mayhem.

Sure, we could turn a dark eye to the presence of Jews and witches in the film. We could note that Jews were persecuted alongside women in Europe during the witch hunts, and sometimes accused of witchcraft themselves. We could point out that the Salem witch trials, though much smaller in scale, are often compared to the Holocaust as another case study in mass hysteria and murder.

But all of that is no fun… and doesn’t change the fact that “Hocus Pocus” is the greatest Halloween movie of all time (this point is irrefutable and I refuse to argue it, dost thou comprehend?). So let’s make like Max Dennison and stop being cool intellectuals just for one day and think about all the ways that the Sanderson sisters are actually terrific Jewish feminist icons.

First of all, the Sanderson sisters are powerful, confident, and comfortable in their identities. They know who they are, what they want, and they’re not going to succumb to societal pressure. Even though their identity involves being technically evil, the film portrays them as simply awesome.

They are women we love for far more than their appearance. We love them for their power, for Winnie’s smarts, for Sarah’s silliness, for all of their spectacular personalities. While I would hardly advocate sucking the lives out of little children to become immortal, there are far worse Jewish female role models. Yes, these women worry and they have family drama. But they take charge, they think on their feet, they’re sexually aware, hilarious, and make the best of what they’ve got (riding mops and vacuums through the sky is pretty resourceful). Yes, they are on a quest to become young and beautiful — but they want youth so that they will live longer. “Boys will love me!” Sarah squeals, but that’s a secondary consideration to the fact that the more time they have on earth, the longer they’ll be able to enjoy life.

The sisters’ different personalities illustrate some of the many ways to be strong, empowered women. Winifred is tough and smart and in control. Sarah is boy crazy, more traditionally pretty, and a bit ditzy — but she’s still frighteningly good at her job (who wouldn’t go into her “garden of magic” — which she uses to lure children and snatch their youth?) Mary is a peacemaker and sometimes goofy, but able to calm her sisters down and see both sides. And they are all completely fantastic and comfortable with themselves. They all have agency. That’s a message worth hearing, a spell that’s worth being under.

Plus, how many times have we all wanted to stick some annoying, cat-calling dude in a bird cage and hang him from the ceiling? No one calls Winifred Sanderson a “chick.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: witches, Jewish, Halloween, Hocus Pocus, Disney

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.