At the feminist seders led by novelist E.M. Broner, the women would go around and introduce themselves matrilineally, naming as many ancestors as they knew. Broner wanted to be sure that they remembered the generations of women who spent the seder in the kitchen, preparing and serving, leaving the telling of the Passover story to the men.
In 1976, Broner, who is perhaps best known for her experimental and critically acclaimed novel “A Weave of Women,” created the first feminist seders, held in Manhattan and Haifa. Now hundreds of women’s seders are held around the world, but few credit Broner, who died in 2011 at age 83, as the pioneer.
Lilly Rivlin’s new film, “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women,” the story of Broner’s life and career woven together with her leadership of the feminist seder, spotlights Broner’s contributions and her uncommon spirit. Her life was a weave of connections — between past and present, and among the women whose lives she threaded together.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rivlin explains that she first met Broner when she was invited to the second feminist seder in 1977; Rivlin was then anointed one of the seder sisters. But she only decided to make this film a few days before Broner’s death, when she and a group of the closest circle of friends — who called themselves the weave — got together after visiting Broner in the hospital and going to Shabbat services. They knew their friend was dying.
“I felt like I had to make a film about her,” Rivlin says. But she never sat down to interview Broner, as she did with subjects of her other films, like novelist and short story writer Grace Paley. Instead, Rivlin unfolds the story through archival footage of the seders and other events, along with her own narration and interviews with leading feminists Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Michelle Landsberg and others. She also includes footage of Broner’s second wedding, held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her marriage to painter Robert Broner.
Known as E.M. Broner in the literary world and Esther to friends, Broner was also a playwright, professor and activist. Her seders and other rituals were grounded in Jewish tradition, but revisioned with an eye of inclusiveness, joy and much color.
In the film, Steinem says, “Sometimes you have to stop and think why will somebody be remembered, but Esther was 100 percent unique.”
Steinem, along with Bella Abzug, the hat-wearing New York Democrat and feminist leader who served in the House of Representatives, and Paley, were named seder mothers by Broner. After Abzug’s death, her hat was featured on the seder table. And after Broner’s death, the feminist seder continues — next month the seder sisters will meet for the 39th time, led in part by Broner’s granddaughter Alexandra.
“In the traditional seder, there is no room for spontaneity,” Broner says in footage from the documentary. “When women do it it’s so thoughtful, it’s so holy, it’s so far reaching and it’s so connective and touching that all of us leave, I think, enlarged.”
Unlike many of the women’s seders held today, the feminist seder was political. For Broner, feminism was a natural outgrowth of her activism in the civil rights and anti-war movements. On camera, Alexandra Broner tells of waiting for her grandmother to pick her up after school, only to learn that Esther, along with a group of older Jewish women, had been arrested for protesting an arrest. They were handcuffed and put into a van, but, as Alexandra recounts, they complained of arthritis and low blood sugar and charmed the police into taking them to Dunkin Donuts for coffee. “No matter how old you are, you act and fight for what you think is right,” Alexandra says of her grandmother’s legacy.
With poetic flourish, Broner would also create rituals for baby namings and for friends in need of some transformation in their lives.
“She stepped over boundaries, but in time and because of her, those boundaries shifted and the things that she taught us became acceptable,” says Orthodox feminist pioneer Blu Greenberg. “I think a lot of Orthodox homes have brought in ritual, where they would not have, had she not begun that process. I’m not so sure that women would know that it came from Esther Broner; that’s sort of the injustice of it.”
Broner’s “Feminist Haggadah,” written with Naomi Nimrod, was published in Ms. magazine in 1976 and as a book in 1993. Broner also wrote “The Telling: The Story of a Group of Jewish Women Who Journey to Spirituality Through Community and Ceremony.”
Other books include the novels “Her Mothers” and “The Red Squad,” and the non-fiction account of her year of saying Kaddish for her father at an Orthodox synagogue near her Chelsea home, “Mornings and Mourning.” In the film, she’s behind the mechitzah in the bright orange raincoat she wore every day to be seen.
Author Dani Shapiro, who studied with Broner at Sarah Lawrence College, explains that her teacher’s voice was totally identifiable, even if seen out of context, “one of the indications of a really authentic voice.”
For Broner, fiction was “just fact with magic added to it.”
Rivlin, the winner of the Miller Distinguished Jewish Woman Filmmaker Award, 2013-14, captures Broner’s big heart, wildly inventive mind, compassion and her loud, infectious, frequent laugh. Rivlin’s strong storytelling skills are also evident in her other films, including “The Tribe,” about the extended Rivlin clan.”
“This film is much more from my guts than any other,” she says. “Esther was very dear to me.”
At the last seder she attends, Broner says, “I don’t think of myself as a pioneer, I think of myself as trying something and it wasn’t accepted. When I wrote the Haggadah it wasn’t accepted at all! I was booed at some synagogues. So that’s an interesting way to start something that will last forever. And I’m in love with all these women, so that’s the best thing of all.”
“Esther Broner: A Weave of Women” will be screened Monday, March 24, 7 p.m., at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave.; a panel discussion with director Lilly Rivlin along wtith Alexandra Broner, Anita Altman and Letty Cottin Pogrebin follows the screening. Tickets $11, members $9.