I’ll admit I did not know who Esther Broner was until she died on Monday. But I certainly knew what she is most famous for: the feminist haggadah. Though her professional life was devoted to academia–a professor of literature at Wayne State, Sarah Lawrence College and sometimes the University of Haifa–to say nothing of writing her many novels, Broner will be forever associated with feminist seders.
The Times obituary notes how, in 1977, she and Naomi Nimrod co-wrote "The Women’s Haggadah" as an insert in Ms. magazine. It featured what was then controversial stuff: like the symbolic opening of the door for the matriarch Miriam, not Elijah. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the founder of Ms. magazine, also wrote a moving piece about Broner in this week’s Forward, which details her other innovations. There was the "sacred schmatte," for instance, in which all the people at Broner’s seder would wrap themselves in a single blanket, symbolizing the community of Jewish women. And there was the revised tropes of the Haggadah:
"Why is this Haggadah different from traditional Haggadot? Because this Haggadah deals with the exodus of women. Why have our mothers on this night been bitter? Because they did the preparation, but not the ritual. They did the serving, but not the conducting. They read of their fathers, but not of their mothers."
Many of these rituals I’ve never experienced, but I remember the first time I did see one of them, which I now know stems from Broner. In college I went to my first progressive seder where we not did only the Miriam ritual, but also the correlated orange-on-the-seder-platee tradition. To be clear: the orange is not Broner’s invention; many attribute it to Susannah Heschel. But it’s clear that the orange stems from the same spirit, and certainly the same set of daring women who demanded their Judaism speak specifically to them. I admire them deeply.
In fact, at my family’s seder this year, we included the orange on our seder plate too. Many progressive seders have either co-opted the orange for another, more politically hot-button issue, like gay rights. But at our seder, my mom was adament we use the orange for its original meaning–women’s rights. You wouldn’t call my mother an outspoken feminist, but her vehement defense that we let the orange speak for women did strike me. In my ignorance, I felt women’s issues were somehow less pressing than, say gay rights, or Middle East peace. Let’s fight for something that really gets people worked up, I thought.
Of course, I know full well the challenges women face in the work place still, to say nothing of the way gender continues places social expectations on us all, men and women both. But in my relish for topicality, for transgressiveness, I had forgotten that issues being old hardly make them resolved. The fights we’e been fighting, like for women, is a long one, but not at all one finished. Broner only began a fight for Jewish women that today, my mother among them, understand is far from over. I thank them both that I understand better now too.