Missing Esther Broner

I’ve just come home from Esther Broner’s funeral.

E. M. Broner, center, leading a women's seder (New York Times)

Esther got the A-list of speakers at her funeral. It was the list she put together right after her beloved husband, Robert, died exactly one year and one day before her. (With those close to her describing her slowly succumbing to failing heart and lungs, I imagine her dying of a broken heart.)

Nephew, children and the famous feminists who were part of her feminist seders over the years – Iconic Feminists Gloria Steinam and Letty Cottin Pogrebin – along with writer Vivian Gornick, American-Israeli Knesset trouble maker Marcia Friedman, longtime local NBC anchor woman Carol Jenkins and daughter, rabbis from Esther Broner’s beloved B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue, and more, all crowded into the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a few blocks from her tiny apartment.

Her nephew hit just the right note on his “crazy New York aunt,” whom he was amazed to find was famous. His magic aunt, a witch, a good witch, with the great cackling laugh.

The women privileged to be in Esther’s feminist seder circle over going back to 1976 lovingly and gratefully told of her rituals created for them in hours of need.

Words of wisdom: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story line. Don’t brush away pamphleteers. Show them respect; take what they’re giving out.

The healing generosity of Esther: Letty telling how when she was totally overwhelmed with all she had taken on, Esther had her lie down, arms outstretched on a huge piece of butcher paper. Esther then outlined Letty’s body with a magic marker and used a feather to brush away the stress from the outlined body. She had Letty repeat three times,  “I have boundaries; I can say no.” (Read Letty’s entire speech in the Forward.)

Vivian Gornick spoke of how when she was blocked in her writing, Esther told her to come over and bring two pages. She kept coming over every week with two more pages until the work was done.

Gloria, thin, serious in black, modestly putting her palms together in a Buddhist greeting of respect. She described her shared grief with Esther after the death of Marilyn French, author of The Women’s Room and their laughing over The New Yorker cartoon of a man with briefcase selling closure.

Memories of Esther’s supply of magic sparkling toy wands and feather rituals. The queen of ritual starting with “The Women’s Haggadah,” written with Naomi Nimrod and published in Ms. Magazine in 1977.

Appreciation of Esther as wife, mother, novelist, poet, fighter for good causes, and weaver of magic rituals.

I remember how surprised I was when I interviewed her for the Lilith article on Feminist Funerals, amazed that she seemingly hadn’t given thought to the final rituals of death. But once she got started, what visions. She wanted lamentations to return to funeral rituals. She imagined a chorus of women tracing the deceased’s matrilineage — “not just bereaved women quietly weeping in the front rows of the funeral parlor.”

Yes, that was what was missing.  Letty quoted Esther as writing on a card shared with the Seder Sisters this year: “Esther Broner: Once she had a shadow. The shadow has been sheared off. Now there remains a trunk of memories of you.” Maybe that was her final hint of what a suitable ritual might be. If only the chorus of women had dug into the trunk other than verbally.

If only one woman had had the courage to give throat to the ululating cry of grief.
Surely the rest of us silent women would have had the courage to join in this ancient soul-searing sendoff.