Broner, E. M.
BRONER, E. M.
Born Esther Masserman, 8 July 1930, Detroit, Michigan
Daughter of Paul and Beatrice Weckstein Masserman; married Robert Broner, 1948; children: four
E. M. Broner's father was a journalist and a Jewish historian, while her mother had acted in the Yiddish theater in Poland. Both activities were to influence Broner's plays, novels, and short stories, into which are woven many of the themes and traditions of Jewish culture.
Broner's first book, Summer Is a Foreign Land (1966), is a verse drama portraying a strong female character who works a particular kind of woman's magic. A Russian Jewish matriarch, who earlier in life inherited three magical wishes from a pious ancestor, lies dying of leukemia. She has already used two wishes to get her family safely out of Russia, and in the course of the play, she must decide how to use the last wish and to whom to bequeath her powers. Her daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren gather at her deathbed, each hoping to inherit the wish that might make their future a little easier. The play ends with both a death and a wedding, emphasizing the perpetuation of life.
An early feminist work, the title piece of Journal/Nocturnal and Seven Stories (1968), decries the passivity of women. The protagonist of the novella, the Wife, leads a double life, which is effectively epitomized by the separate columns in which the tale is written. One half of each page represents the woman's journal, the other her nocturnal pursuits. The Wife is married to a liberal professor who spends most of his time working against the Vietnam war. At night, she sleeps with the Guest, who defends the war. She agrees with both men, both political positions. The war becomes a metaphor for her life and her life becomes a symbol for the way the country as a whole was split during the war.
In Her Mothers (1975, reissued 1985), Beatrice Palmer searches for her wayward, runaway daughter. In the process, she also searches for herself and for her literary, historical, and biological mothers. There is a powerful scene near the conclusion of the book where mother and daughter struggle in the ocean, the mother almost drowning her child. Ultimately, however, there is a kind of reconciliation. The novel ends with a paean to women, to women finding themselves and each other.
Broner's fourth book, A Weave of Women (1978, reissued 1985), provides a spiritual conclusion to the search initiated in her previous works. In the book, Broner creates a model for a woman's utopian society. Significantly set in Jerusalem, land of the prophets, the novel describes a society where women are supportive, understanding, strong, and inventive. Twelve women and three confused girls come together to make "corrections" in their lives and to restore dignity to one another. The book celebrates women and womanhood, glorifying the female passages from birth to menses, marriages, motherhood, menopause, and death. Like Broner's earlier writing, A Weave of Women discovers traditions for women, and where traditions are lacking, creates new ones.
Aside from these published volumes, Broner has written essays, reviews, short fiction, and drama. She has also created new rituals for women, including "A Woman's Passover Haggadah" (with Naomi Nimrod) published in Ms. (April 1977). Broner's work is exciting and innovative in both form and content. Although her vision is basically tragic, as a feminist writer she is well aware of the comedy of androcentric manners. She does not simply lament woman's current social state but celebrates woman's strength and dignity. By placing her protagonists in an almost mythic context, and by giving them a cultural and a literary heritage, Broner suggests something of women's present goals and future prospects.
As a novelist, playwright, and teacher, Broner is concerned with establishing spiritual and artistic traditions for women. In the late 1970s and 1980s her interest in tradition led to explorations of women and Judaism. A feminist, she maintains that male authority in both the literary and the religious traditions has excluded women from positions of equality.
In 1980 Broner and Cathy Davidson jointly edited The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, a large and diverse selection of essays by female scholars. In the introduction, the editors assert that the patriarchal tradition in literature has separated mothers from daughters. The essays discuss the depiction of women in literature from the ancient Near East and ancient Greece, the Old Testament, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance through to the 20th century.
In recent years Broner has worked to reconcile her feminism with her religious faith. After her father's death in 1986, she participated in an Orthodox prayer ceremony to mourn his passing. She recounts her experience at the Orthodox synagogue in Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal (1989). Prohibited because of her gender from participating fully in the ceremony, Broner resisted the sexist precepts of the Orthodox ritual, even as she became a part of the small group of men who participated in the Kaddish. With a straightforward style and a good deal of humor, the story chronicles her attempt to bring women into the religious community as full partners. In diary entries in the book, Broner talks of feeling like "half a man" during services. The women were separated from the men by quite unsophisticated dividers like drapes hung on a makeshift rack and plastic shower curtains. About the experience, Broner said: "I won that battle with the Mechitzah. I wouldn't submit. I wouldn't sit separately from them (the men in the minyan). It no longer had anything to do with separation, but total obliteration. Faithfulness is doing mitzvot, not being submissive." Broner treats the same experience in her play Half-a-Man (1989), which was performed in both Los Angeles and Detroit. Two other plays, Letters to My Television Past (1985) and The Olympics (1986), have been performed in New York City.
Broner's interest in Judaism and feminism continues in a work-in-progress, tentatively titled The Repair Shop, which features a female rabbi; she received support for her work on this novel from the National Endowment for the Arts (1987) and a MacDowell Fellowship (1989-90). The Telling (1993) charts the spiritual journey of a group of Jewish women, which includes Broner herself, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and other prominent feminists. It includes Broner's earlier "A Woman's Passover Haggadah" originally published in Ms. in 1977, which had created quite a stir. Audiences at readings booed her, and Broner admitted, "It was too shocking for audiences. A potential publisher called it a 'trick Haggadah."' Once published, though, it became the pattern for other projects by other authors.
In Broner's recent book, Ghost Stories (1995), she tells the tale of a daughter who encounters her mother's ghost and forges a deeper relationship with it than the one she had with her mother when she was alive. Leila meets her mother's ghost during the ritual 11 months of mourning following death. As she attends synagogue, the two strike up conversations about family history, recipes, life, and news about neighbors and relatives. Broner's humorous tale explores a mother-daughter relationship that doesn't end with death.
Broner continues to be an active teacher and lecturer as well as a writer. She is professor emeritus at Wayne State University, where she taught English and creative writing from 1964 to 1987. During the 1980s she was a guest writer at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, Ohio State, Tulane, and City College of New York. She is a contributing editor of Tikkun and Lilith, and a regular book reviewer for Women's Review of Books. Broner also has been a contributor to Epoch, Jewish Review, Commentary, North American Review, Letters and Heresies.
Colonel Higginson (musical drama, with M. Zieve, 1968). The Body Parts of Margaret Fuller (play, 1978).
Barkowski, F., Feminist Utopias (1989). Heschel, S., ed., On Being a Jewish Feminist (1983). Reddy, M., and B. Daly, eds., Narrating Mothers (1991). Roreck, R., and E. Hoffman-Baruch, eds., Women in Search of Utopia (1984).
CA (1976). CANR (1983, 1989). CLC (1981). CN (1986). DLB (1984). FC (1990).
Booklist (15 Mar. 1967, 1 Dec. 1975). Choice (Nov. 1967). Commentary (Apr. 1969). Dispatch (Fall 1988). Kalliope (1985). KR (15 July 1975). LJ (1 Dec. 1966, Aug. 1975). MELUS (Winter 1982). Ms. (July 1976, July/Aug. 1991). PW (11 Aug. 1975, 12 July 1976). Regionalism and the Female Imagination (special Broner piece, Winter 1977-78). Studies in American Jewish Literature (Spring 1991).
—CATHY N. DAVIDSON
UPDATED BY MELISSA BURNS