The Column | She set the stage for a new generation

I knew the name Esther Broner before I saw Lilly Rivlin’s documentary “A Weave of Women,” which had its world premiereAug. 8 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. But I didn’t really know — meaning, I didn’t grasp how groundbreaking and extensive her contribution was to Jewish feminist practice.

So much of what I take for granted, from the Women’s Haggadah to reimagined rituals that elevate the role of women in Jewish history, can be traced back to the work and influence of this extraordinary, loving, brilliant woman, who died two years ago at the age of 83.

Now we have Rivlin’s gem of a film to tell her story and that of the Seder Sisters, the women whom Broner gathered around her every Passover for a women’s seder that became legendary in Jewish feminist circles.

And they were some women! Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Grace Paley — strong, creative, influential women who, every year beginning in 1976 at the home of Phyllis Chesler in New York, sat together and told the Passover story using a new haggadah that focused on the part played by Jewish women in the Exodus. Broner wrote that haggadah with Israeli feminist scholar Naomi Nimrod in 1975-76, as the two buried themselves in Jewish texts to uncover the story’s meaning for their generation, much as they felt the (male) writers of the original haggadah did for their era.

Last week I sat down with Rivlin at a café in North Berkeley. A U.C. Berkeley grad and political activist long before she became a documentary filmmaker in her mid-40s, Rivlin visits Berkeley regularly and showed a first version of her film to a group of women friends here last year.

Some of them — political activists all — had never heard of Broner, which astonished Rivlin, a regular at the women’s seders since 1977 and one of the longtime Seder Sisters whom Broner wrote about in her groundbreaking 1978 Jewish feminist novel, also titled “A Weave of Women.”

Some of the most fascinating parts of Rivlin’s documentary came from footage of the 1984 seder, which she filmed with the idea it would someday prove useful.

In it we see feisty Bella Abzug considering what she’d like to get rid of for Passover — in Broner’s words, the hametz she would like to burn. “The male patriarchy,” Abzug finally offers, to much laughter.

We see a young Steinem comforting a sobbing woman, one of several personal insights the film offers on well-known figures.

“At that first seder we all knew we were part of something really special,” Steinem later reminisces, noting that she’d never been to a seder before. “I had no idea it was going to become such a huge tradition.”

And we see Broner herself, explaining to the circle of women that the traditional seder, which means “the order,” “begins when the men sit down at the table.” But, she continues, “For women, the ‘order’ begins when we clean the house. Then we cut up the vegetables — a very different order.”

Watching these women 25 years ago cry as, for the first time, they call themselves their mother’s daughters — bat Rivka, bat Chana — made me realize how emotional this break with tradition was for the first women who did it. My generation of women, who came of age in the ’80s and later, always had our Miriam’s Cup, our invoking of the Shechinah, our Debbie Friedman songs about the matriarchs and the patriarchs.

What we enjoyed without thinking was due to the conscious and difficult struggle of these Seder Sisters and those who shared their table. And it was Broner who held them together.

“I’m not so sure people know this all comes from Esther Broner,” says Orthodox feminist leader Blu Greenberg at the film’s conclusion. “That’s the injustice of it.”

For me, that comment suggests how Broner’s work will continue — not in the liberal Jewish circles where it has largely succeeded, but in the Orthodox world where a new generation of highly educated women is pushing the boundaries of halachah and demanding a place at the table, too.

“It’s those women who will have to liberate themselves,” Rivlin told me. “With the haredim, it’s the women who will open it up. They’re the only ones who have contact with society, because [while the men study], they’re the ones out working.”

 

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.

fishkoff-sue-WEB
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.