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.
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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).


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