The Liberation of Helène Aylon

Journey From Orthodox Rebbetzin to Avant-Garde Artist

Open Books: Aylon’s ‘The Liberation of G-d’ physically critiques the Bible without defacing it.
Helène Aylon, ‘the liberation of g-d, 1990-1996
Open Books: Aylon’s ‘The Liberation of G-d’ physically critiques the Bible without defacing it.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published July 09, 2012, issue of July 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

When her daughter went to college, Aylon moved to Westbeth, the artist’s housing complex in Manhattan’s West Village, and began sleeping with the young man she hired to walk her dog. He turned out to be not the jazz musician she thought, but a heroin addict. Friends invited her to drive with them to California, so she made a clean break from New York and talked her way into a job teaching at San Francisco State University. Aylon stayed in Berkeley for a decade.

In California, through the 1970s, she created “The Breakings” series, which today she calls her most important work. She poured linseed oil on large panels, letting them lie flat until the oil formed a thick skin. Months later she lifted the panels so that the wet oil formed a sac beneath the skin, which then broke, drizzling or gushing down the panel and creating something new. It was, Aylon writes, “very wet, orgasmic process art.” The paintings reflected her internal process: “I intentionally made paintings that change through natural means, such as a plant that grows, a face that wrinkles, a scar that heals.”

In the 1980s, Aylon turned her focus away from the body and toward the earth and anti-nuclear activism. For “Earth Ambulance,” she traveled to military bases, nuclear reactors and uranium mines. There she collected dirt in pillowcases, which she used to demonstrate outside the United Nations for the second special session on nuclear disarmament, in June 1982. In 1985 she went to Japan to mark the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There she floated sacks filled with seeds, pods, grain and bamboo shoots downriver toward those cities.

Perhaps Aylon’s best-known work is her nine-part “God Project,” which starts with the “Liberation of G-d” Chumash installation and has spanned almost three decades. It began in 1984, when her son asked her to write the marriage contract for his wedding. In a traditional ketubah, the bride and groom are identified by only their fathers’ names, and because her son is traditionally observant, whatever she did required Orthodox approbation. But Aylon felt it wasn’t right to exclude the mothers’ names. She went from one Orthodox rabbi to another — six, in total — before finding Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who allowed her to include the mothers’ names in the margins or on the back of the document.

Aylon put asterisks in the text where the mothers’ names would have been, and wrote the word “Ima” on the bottom margin, to stand “for all mothers.” “This small act of correcting an ancient text was the beginning; putting in the asterisks meant something was left out and I was correcting the omission,” she writes. Her next correction would be far more ambitious: the Torah itself.

Aylon spent the following six years highlighting each chapter of the Five Books of Moses. Each night, she made “a horizontal pink slash over the words of vengeance, deception, cruelty and misogyny — words attributed to G-d. In between words where the female presence was left out, I inserted a vertical pink line.” She continued her critique in the subsequent parts of the series, restoring the names of mothers — her own, and our biblical and historical — and interpolating a female perspective into Jewish rituals where none is codified.

Throughout her memoir, as in “The Liberation of G-d,” Aylon uses a pink dash between the letters G and D wherever the word “God” appears. In anyone else’s hands, this would seem like little more than a gimmick. But here it works. It means more than the letter o, omitted from written representations of the name of God by many observant Jews. It represents all that is missing from Jewish tradition as men have shaped it, and illustrates not only that the voices of women have been excluded, but also that what we all take to represent God is incomplete for their absence.

Aylon occupies a unique, sometimes uneasy place in the spectrums of Jewish art and feminism. She is more organic and less overtly political than other feminist artists, even as her work is more specifically Jewish and knowledgeable than that of most Jewish artists. She is not a maker of shtetl sentimentality, of wistful Shabbos scenes or reverential rebbe portraits. But her gaze is loving even when it is angry. This is what makes Aylon a compelling artist, and her memoir worth reading: Her ability to show the ways in which Judaism has controlled and confined her, as it has all Jewish women. And yet, to love it all the same.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Forward contributing editor and the author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways To Welcome Baby Girls Into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.