Esther M. Broner
Novelist, playwright, ritualist, and feminist writer, Esther M. Broner was born on July 8, 1927, in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Paul Masserman, a journalist and Jewish historian, and Beatrice (Weckstein) Masserman, once an actor in Yiddish theater in Poland. Educated at Wayne State University, where she received her B.A. and M.A, and later served as a professor of English and writer-in-residence, she completed her Ph.D. at Union Graduate School in 1979.
Before she was twenty years old, she married artist Robert Broner. The couple had four children, two of whom were twins. Before any of the children turned five years old, Esther Broner had written autobiographically about the passions of everyday life and about her Jewish heritage.
Beginning with her 1968 experimental novel Journal/Nocturnal, Broner articulates forceful and original views of women’s experience. With the publication of Her Mothers in 1975, Broner emerged as a leading feminist writer whose characters were bitter, fearless, and uproariously funny. “It’s a gentle book and yet a savage one,” one reviewer wrote, about the birth, nurturance, and rebirth of all women. Her novel A Weave of Women (1978) combined Jewish and feminist themes to achieve a mystical, surreal, and hilarious vision of women who invent a new society. This pair established Broner as a writer of enduring masterpieces that expressed but were not contained by the feminist movement.
Marking her presence in the academic world, she edited with Cathy Davidson a collection of scholarly articles, The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature (1981). Broner and Davidson began their collaboration in 1975 at the Midwest Modern Language Association meeting when members of the women’s caucus voted to hold a special workshop on mothers and daughters in literature at their next convention.
In 1982, Esther and Robert Broner moved to New York City. There she joined and helped shape a thriving community of Jewish feminists, becoming a ritualist who invented new rites of passage to mark the new era. In the spring of 1976 Broner published “Women’s Haggadah” in Ms. magazine. Published as a book in 1994, this more direct engagement with Jewish tradition carried her writing into a more explicitly autobiographical direction. Her memoir The Telling: The Story of a Group of Jewish Women Who Journey to Spirituality Through Community and Ceremony (1993) gives a historical overview of her previous ten years and provides an instructional guide to Jewish feminism.
In two books that described her reaction to first her father’s and then her mother’s deaths, Broner continued this combination of compelling autobiography and acute feminist critique of Jewish ritual. Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal (1994) narrates her day-to-day struggle to join a local minyan in the year following her father’s death. Ghost Stories (1995) tenderly relates and gives meaning to her mother’s death. Both works draw on Broner’s capacity for self-transcendence through wildly improbable humor and deeply committed spirituality.
Broner’s work as a dramatist began early in her career with Colonel Higginson (1968) and The Body Parts of Margaret Fuller (1976), which draws on her interest in American literary history. In 1982 she adapted A Weave of Women to the stage and she later completed Letters to My Television Past (1985), The Olympics (1986), and Half-a-Man (1989), which were staged in New York City, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Her short stories have appeared in dozens of periodicals.
In addition to Wayne State University, she taught at the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Haifa, Israel; Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Oberlin College; and Sarah Lawrence College.
The Body Parts of Margaret Fuller (1976);
Colonel Higginson (1968);
Ghost Stories (1995);
Her Mothers (1975);
Letters to My Television Past (1985);
The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, edited with Cathy N. Davidson (1981);
Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal (1994);
The Olympics (1986);
The Telling: The Story of a Group of Jewish Women Who Journey to Spirituality Through Community and Ceremony (1993);
A Weave of Women (1978);
Ms. (Spring 1976);
The Women’s Haggadah (1994).
Davidson, Cathy N. Guide to American Women Writers. Vol. 1;
Jewish Book Annual (1981);
Witenko, Barbara. “Feminist Ritual as a Process of Social Transformation.” Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1992.
How to cite this page
Sklar, Kathryn Kish. "Esther M. Broner." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/broner-esther-m>.