Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lilly Rivlin's ESTHER BRONER celebrates the gal who gave us the first feminist seder

TrustMovies knew nothing about Esther Broner (1927-2011) when he sat down to watch the new documentary ESTHER BRONER: A WEAVE OF WOMEN. But he did know something about the filmmaker, Lilly Rivlin, for he had seen her earlier and excellent documentary, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, when it played the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival back in 2010. Rivlin's new film on Broner plays this year's SFJFF, which begins on Thursday, July 25. That her film on Paley has still not opened theatrically here in New York (or even been seen on our PBS station) where the famous author lived, worked and protested, borders on the criminal -- culture-wise, at least.

If Esther Broner: AWOW proves perhaps a tad less interesting than the Paley film, that may be due to the fact many of us will know much less about Broner or her work that we do about the late Ms Paley and hers. This has an upside, however; by the time we've finished watching Esther in thought and action, we're certain to have learned a lot. Director/producer Rivlin, shown at right (the film's co-producer is Margaret Murphy, shown below), was present at the creation (or near to it), so to speak, when Esther came up with her idea for the very first feminist Seder, during the time when (to my mind, anyway) feminism was on the rise and approaching its peak.

While I actually wish this were not so, as feminism still has a long way to go, I suppose that we must be patient and wait for that pendulum to finally swing back, allowing the rights of women to be taken more seriously again.

So, what's the reason behind -- and the need for -- a feminist Seder? (That's an early version, shown below.) As one of the women here explains it, "Those of us who gathered for that first feminist Seder understood that the equality we were fighting for in society had to extend to the traditions of Judaism." Notes another, dryly: "The original exodus didn't even mention women." Or, as Gloria Steinem, one of the attendees, explains it, "That first Seder really felt like rebellion."

Throughout this documentary, which jumps back and forth in time, we get a pretty good history of Esther, as well as her husband, Robert, who became a well-known American artist. We learn that Esther traveled to and lived for awhile in America's south, where she broke the front door of her home so that all visitors -- not just "coloreds," as was the custom then -- had to use the back door.

Late in life, after the financial meltdown, Broner had this to say: "I thought we'd have Socialism by now, at the least. I never thought that the rich would grow richer and the poor poorer. That's not what we were studying for." Regarding the feminist Seder, with growth and popularity came problems -- mostly about whom to invite. "And Esther just wouldn't fight about this," notes one of the women interviewed here.

Considering the documentary's short length (just 62 minutes, including credits), we get a fairly rounded view of this unique woman. A novelist, playwright, ritualist and feminist writer, Broner was very much into "magic" and witch-like rituals. But, as writer Vivian Gornick, who was not into this sort of thing, explains: "It was her genuineness. She came through for people in ways that were just right for them. And just at the moment they needed it."

One of the most interesting sections of the film involves Broner's father, after the death of whom, Esther searched for an orthodox synagogue in which she would be allowed to recite the prayer for the dead. It wasn't easy to find a synagogue that would allow this; when she finally did, she still had to recite behind a curtain.

As the movie points out, in Jewish tradition, male lineage dominates identity, from son to son to son. Yet you can't even be a Jew unless the woman who gave birth to you was, too. What's with that? Just more patriarchal hypocrisy I suppose. Whatever, it took 17 years of pushing before Esther finally was able to see her Women's Haggadah published in 1994.

Stay through the end credits, please, or you'll miss a wonderful moment, as Michele Landsberg talks about Esther's unique laugh -- and then gives us a pretty wonderful imitation of it.

Esther Broner: A Weave of Women plays at the SFJFF at the California Theater on Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm. Let's hope it makes its way here to New York, and elsewhere. (And that Rivlin's terrific Grace Paley movie finally does, too.)

Photo credits: 
just above, courtesy of Wayne State University; 
the penultimate shot, by Bob Vigelletti;  
three photos above, by Willy Clay; 
six photos above, by Joan Roth.

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