The first time I met the writer, feminist and modern-day matriarch E.M. Broner—better known to her friends as Esther—she was wielding a wand. It had been a sad occasion, the first anniversary of the death of the late, great book critic and, for a time, Nation literary editor John Leonard, and a few of us were gathered at the house John had shared with his wife Sue, a brilliant teacher, radical spirit, and one of the first women to teach me about feminism.
We were just digging into a mound of oversized, drown-your-sorrows desserts when Broner walked in—or floated, more accurately—an 81-year-old fairy with leaping eyes, a delighted cackle, and unapologetically frizzy brown hair. She seemed ancient and ageless all at once, and she was waving one of those glittery star-shaped wands that are so popular with the under-eight set. There aren’t many people who can pull off a wand, with or without glitter, but Broner wore it like a particularly graceful limb. When she waved it over us, the lights—I am certain of this—buzzed 50 watts brighter.
On June 21st, this exquisite woman died, just a few weeks shy of her 83rd birthday and long, long before she or the world she inhabited was ready. While I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Broner well, she was the kind of person I adored instantly, enjoyed tremendously, and admired endlessly. She wrote books—lilting, sensuous, form-bending books like A Weave of Women and The Red Squad; she taught writing, literature, and life; she invented rituals; she organized and protested; she helped midwife the movement for Jewish feminism—once, perhaps, thought to be an oxymoron—and helped refashion a religion in the process.
Mostly, though, she cast spells.
You see, Broner was one of the women who came before, part of that group and generation of lady warriors who made my world possible. She slew the dragons so my friends and I didn’t have to, but she slew them with such charm and wit and eloquent determination that it might be more accurate to say that she didn’t kill them so much as de-fang them, ensorcell them with her incantations and imagination.
“She gives such a twinkle to the phrase earth mother, because that’s what she was. Every single cell of her being was feminist, and that radiated outward in any circumstance, in any situation,” our shared friend Sue Leonard said. “And other people might have a different interpretation, but I think it was her feminism that made her such a humanist about anybody anywhere who was being in any way downtrodden.”
It was this feminist humanism, or humanist feminism, that inspired Broner to hold high the banner of so many righteous struggles: antiwar, labor, civil rights, Palestinian rights, and, of course, women’s struggles both near and far. She held vigil with Women in Black, she protested police brutality—indeed, she got arrested when she was past 70 for protesting the brutal 41-bullet execution of Amadou Diallo.
“She was just tuned in, passionate, and willing to put her body on the line,” her close friend, the writer and feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, said.
Still her most lasting legacy will almost certainly be the way she helped remake Judaism for so many women, remake it in their image. This is hardly a small feat given that the religion in question—like so many of the really big ones, frankly—has excelled for some three millennia at writing women into subservience when it wasn’t simply writing them off. But Broner helped reclaim a place and a history for the second sex by both forcing her way into male-dominated rituals— witness her year-long struggle to say kaddish for her dad at an orthodox synagogue, which she chronicled in Mornings and Mourning: a Kaddish Journal—and by inventing new ones. Hence the wands. And feathers. And sacred shmatte. Hence also the coven that include Gloria Steinem, Marilyn French, and Carol Jenkins. And hence The Women’s Haggadah she co-authored in 1977 and the legendary women’s seder she conjured a year earlier, an act of religious reinvention that became a New York tradition celebrated each year alongside such sisterly powerhouses as Grace Paley, Bella Abzug, Steinem, Pogrebin and others.
“There is no way to calculate the enormous impact she’s had,” said Pogrebin, who credits Broner with drawing her back toward Judaism—an enlightened feminist Judaism—after years of disenchantment. “She was able to rename what mattered in women’s lives, and to sacralize it, to make sacred, the way men throughout time were able to name the sacred, and she did it with this whispery voice and rosy cheeks and glittering eyes.”
What does all of this renaming and sacralizing, reinventing and reshaping have to do with everyone else? Quite a bit actually since what Broner offers, among so many other things, is a beautiful example of exploding a tradition to save it, transforming something that had oppressed her into something that might liberate her.
As I write this, I can’t help but think back to a tribute paid recently to another righteous soul who was yanked away far too soon. Several weeks ago, during an impromptu eulogy for the Jenin Freedom Theater fighter Juliano Mer-Khamis, the filmmaker Udi Aloni compared his friend to the great trickster figure in literature. The trickster is the great subverter, the irreverent, irrepressible boundary breaker. He is Puck and Huck, Eshu and Anansi, The Little Tramp, Hermes—any number of protean beings who are at once inside and outside, here and there, bending norms, meaning, and the laws of reality.
Broner wasn’t exactly a trickster—tricksters historically haven’t been women, and it wasn’t really her style either. But she was both inside and outside, bending norms, hovering at the door between tradition and equality, turning stasis into possibility. All of which makes her something rare indeed: the woman with the wand.
Image courtesy of Tulane University.