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E.M. Broner, author with Jewish feminist focus

Women’s seders led by E.M. Broner (center) had been held in New York City since 1976. Women’s seders led by E.M. Broner (center) had been held in New York City since 1976. (Joan Roth/New York Times)
By Margalit Fox
New York Times / June 24, 2011

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NEW YORK — E.M. Broner, a writer who explored the double marginalization of being Jewish and female, producing a body of fiction and nonfiction that placed her in the vanguard of Jewish feminist letters, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 83.

The cause was multiple organ failure as a result of an infection, her daughter Nahama said.

Dr. Broner (her surname rhymes with “owner’’) was among the first writers to consider feminism and Judaism as parts of a seamless if difficult-to-integrate whole. While her work was often likened to that of postwar feminist novelists like Doris Lessing, Marge Piercy, and Marilyn French, it was distinguished by its specifically Jewish focus.

In that respect, Dr. Broner was sometimes compared to Grace Paley, whose fiction also centered on modern Jewish women. But where Paley’s work was steeped in secular progressivism, Dr. Broner’s was intensely concerned with Jewish spirituality and carving out a place for women in a faith tradition that seemed not to want them.

One of Dr. Broner’s most influential books was “The Women’s Haggadah,’’ written with Naomi Nimrod. Originally published in Ms. magazine in 1977 — at the time no book publisher would touch it, Dr. Broner explained in interviews — it was one of the first Haggadot to recast the Passover seder from a feminist vantage point. It was issued in book form by HarperSanFrancisco in 1994.

“The Women’s Haggadah’’ has inspired feminist seders throughout the world. Dr. Broner’s own women’s seder, held in New York since 1976 (often in her apartment), was regularly attended by luminaries including Paley, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug.

As a novelist, Dr. Broner was best known for “A Weave of Women,’’ published in 1978. It centers on 15 women from around the world who are living communally in Jerusalem in the early 1970s.

The book typified Dr. Broner’s novelistic style: experimental, nonlinear, and magic realist, suffused with myth, mysticism, and sensory experience. Its prose can be sober, even urgent, but is also peppered with sly humor.

Esther Frances Masserman was born in Detroit.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in creative writing from Wayne State University in Detroit; she later received a doctorate, with a specialization in religion, from what is now the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati.

She joined the Wayne State faculty in 1964 and taught in the English department for many years; she also taught at Sarah Lawrence College and elsewhere.

Dr. Broner’s husband — Robert, a printmaker whom she married in 1948 — died last year. Besides her daughter Nahama, she leaves another daughter, Sari; two sons, Adam and Jeremy; a brother, Jay Masserman; and two grandchildren.