E.M. Broner (1927-2011): Never Timid, Even When You Were Afraid
[I took this photograph at Gloria Steinem's apartment, May 2010, at the book party Gloria hosted for Esther's The Red Squad, a brilliant political novel set in 1960s Detroit, and published by Pantheon when Esther was 80. That's her editor on the left.]
My friend novelist E. M. Broner taught me what is one of the most powerful lessons of my life, and the best legacy I can pass on to HASTAC readers. She didn't teach me in words, but by example: She was never timid, even when she was afraid.
One chooses one's mentors for why we need them. Like John Hope Franklin, another mentor I chose (whether he wanted yet another mentee or not!), Esther never shied from protesting against what was wrong and never shied from having fun. Her anger at injustice was matched by her expansive love. She made hard choices over and over about how she would live her life, what stories she would tell, what ceremonies she would perform. She was not vindictive, ever, and yet had little concern for who she might offend with her feminist seders or her political activism, alliances with Palestinian feminists, moving the Torah to the women's side of the synagogue, joining Grace Paley chained to fences at the White House and at many other cities to protest wars and violence against women and racism and politically-motivated hatred.
I asked her once, "Aren't you afraid?" as she headed toward an angry crowd with those beautiful fox eyes slit tightly in determination even as her smile was on her face. "Of course!" she said, throwing back her mane of jet black curls and laughing that cackle that Gloria Steinem used to joke about ("May that laugh embarrass us in public forever!" Gloria would always toast, changing other parts of the toast, but always working in Esther's exhuberant cackle that must have sounded, to her enemies, like the Valkyrie descending upon them.)
I don't feel up to writing any more about my friend. She died one year and one day after the death of her husband of sixty or more years, the brilliant artist Robert Broner. Their love was legendary. Through his final illness, Esther slept at his side every day, and, when I visited them, the last time I saw them together, she said, "Isn't he a handsome boy? Aren't you gorgeous?" and through her eyes the painter was ever-handsome and boyish. . . and, through those eyes, yes, I was gorgeous.
We edited an issue of Women's Studies together. We coedited The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, my first book. We helped Gloria around the kitchen table on a collection of fiction from Ms. We drove across the country together, a road trip, and sang terrible songs, her voice so deliriously ecstatically off key it was almost on again. And she taught me that, if you want to make a difference in the world, you have to act, you cannot pull punches, just because you happen to be afraid.
The New York Times has written a marvelous obituary to Esther Broner. http://tinyurl.com/6csos8n
Esther (EM) Broner, novelist, playwright, feminist theologian, Jewish activist, mentor, coauthor, friend, my surrogate and self-selected mother when I needed one, mother to four children of her own, teacher to hundreds, role model to thousands and more. Thank you, Esther. You were never timid, even when you were afraid.