July 8, 1927, is the birthdate of the novelist and Jewish feminist E.M. Broner. It was she who organized a groundbreaking women-only seder in New York 1976, and co-wrote the Haggadah that emerged from that happening.
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Broner was part of a group of New York Jewish women – including Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Phyllis Chesler -- who achieved semi-legendary status, both collectively and individually, certainly among members of a certain generation of American Jews. But much as she was identified with American Jewish issues, Broner also had a deep connection to Israel, having lived and taught here during the 1970s, and using it as the location for what became her most celebrated novel, “A Weave of Women.”
Esther Frances Masserman was born in Detroit, Michigan, daughter of the former Beatrice Weckstein, who in her native Poland had been an actor, and Paul Masserman, a journalist and historian. Esther earned both her bachelor’s degree, in sociology, and an MFA in creative writing, at Wayne State University in the city.
In 1948, while still in college, Esther got married, to a printmaker, also from Detroit, named Robert Broner: They were together until Robert’s death, in 2010 -- he making art and teaching, she writing literature and teaching.
Meanwhile, after a brief sojourn at what is today Auburn University, in Alabama, where they started a literary review (in which Esther published her first short story, “Sudvick the Nudnik,” in 1949), and encountered the engrained racism of the deep South, the couple moved to New York.
Bella Abzug. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Who, me female?
Over the years, Esther taught English at Wayne State, at Sarah Lawrence, and also at the University of Haifa, among other institutions. At the same time, she earned a Ph.D. in 1979 from the Union Graduate School, then in New York. She also had four children, including twins.
She wrote under the name E.M. Broner, a deliberately non-gendered form she selected because she thought it would improve her chances of getting published. Of course, what she wrote about throughout her life was women’s lives – about their places in families, about the search for spiritual meaning, with frequent allusions to political concerns.
Her self-consciousness was probably realistic: Although the first women’s seder was organized by Broner and Israeli scholar Naomi Nimrod in Israel in 1975 – and followed the next year in New York, using the text of the Haggadah compiled by the two women --it was not until 1994 that a U.S. publisher was interested in bringing out “The Women’s Haggadah” in book form.
The sacred and the profane
Broner’s 1975 novel “Her Mothers” follows a group of women through the cycle of their lives. That was followed three years later by “A Weave of Women,” which features a group of 13 women of different nationalities and faiths, who share a communal home in Jerusalem’s Old City, and together create their own spiritual rituals.
Writing in this paper in 2009, when he reviewed Broner’s final novel, “The Red Squad,” Jeremy Dauber noted that though “Weave of Women” read as somewhat dated three decades later, “It is also extremely powerful, even now, with ritual tones that weave together the sacred and profane, the contemporary and the timeless.”
Broner was always pushing Judaism to be more inclusive of women, and when necessary, she would push harder. Her friend and colleague Letty Cottin Pogrebin called her an “all-around holy troublemaker.”
In the 1994 “Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal,” for example, Broner chronicled the year following her father’s death, when she attempted to say the Kaddish memorial prayer for him at a small synagogue near her home in Manhattan. As the shul was Orthodox, the other morning prayer-goers would not count her in the minyan (quorum of 10 men) traditionally required for the recitation of that prayer. They also replaced the mehitza several times to make it increasingly harder for her to see through.
She did not take it lying down. When the males installed an opaque shower curtain for a mehitza, Broner responded by donning a bathing cap.
Esther M. Broner died on June 21, 2011, at age 83, as a result of complications of an infection.