Helène Aylon: Rescuing G-d from the Patriarchy
When I was growing up, I ran away from Hebrew school (successfully) and whispered through Rosh Hashanah services. As far as I was concerned, religion was a conservative cult, and Abrahamic faiths didn’t seem to be interested in powerful women expressing themselves. It wasn’t until I met my sister's bat mitzvah tutor, a reiki-teaching Jewish educator, or encountered the Hillel Rabbi at Oberlin College––an articulate lesbian with a purple streak in her hair–or heard of the Jewish Women’s Archive, an organization whose mission rests on the intersection of feminism and Jewish history, that I felt like I had found a place in Judaism for my feminism, and for me. And through JWA, I recently discovered Helène Aylon, an artist whose projects and story bring these struggles of faith and feminism into focus.
Growing up and attending yeshiva as an Orthodox Jew in Boro Park, Brooklyn, Aylon couldn’t run away from, or quietly ignore, her Judaism. As a widowed mother of two pursuing her art degree at Brooklyn College, she felt guilty to be focused on anything other than motherhood when she was expected to devote herself completely to her children. In her art, Aylon struggled with the painful idea that being critical of certain aspects of Judaism was a betrayal of the religion itself.
Where there is pain, there is art. Aylon’s work revolves around rescuing what she values from the damage inflicted by our society. In the 1970s, Aylon began by “rescuing” the body. She created “orgasmic” but unsexualized art in which she poured linseed oil onto panels, and months later, lifted the panels, allowing the oil to form a sagging sack which eventually broke, causing oil to gush and drip through. These sagging, dripping membranes alluded to the human body and, while sensual and intimate, the imagery was displayed in a non-commercialized or sexualized way. In the 1980s, Aylon transitioned from body to earth: she scooped up dirt from nuclear test sites and put it into pillowcases that she then transported in “earth ambulances.”
Aylon’s most recent undertaking, The G-d Project, has spanned the past two decades. Begun when she realized that “it was time to rescue G-d from the patriarchy,” the project includes nine installations centered on reclaiming Judaism from its male-centric text and practice. Each piece in the series is a tribute to Jewish women of the present and past. This venture began with a work titled “The Liberation of G-d.”
Aylon covered each page of the Five Books of Moses with transparent parchment and highlighted any passage or statement she deemed problematic. She highlighted misogyny, homophobia, and the erasure of women’s involvement in the Jewish story. For Aylon, these examples of patriarchy in Judaism were a reflection of male authors, rather than of G-d’s true meaning.
In another installation, “My Bridal Chamber: My Marriage Contract,” Aylon shows the erasure of women from important religious documents by featuring her own marriage contract, which refers to her simply as the virgin daughter of her father. The installation also includes an image of her late husband's tombstone, highlighting the omission of any mention of his mother. Aylon brings attention to the Jewish women who have been erased from the narrative; she is rescuing Jewish women from oblivion while rescuing god from patriarchal ideals. Aylon also draws attention to the perception that menstruating women are unclean. In the piece, “My Bridal Chamber: My Marriage Bed/My Clean Days,” a “24-foot menstrual chart of the decade of [Aylon’s] marriage indicates ‘unclean’ and ‘clean’ days, and the day of the ritual bath when relations can ensue.” Women not counting as part of a minyan is addressed in “The Partition is in Place, but the Service Can’t Begin.”
“Afterward: For the Children” is Aylon’s final installation in The G-d Project, in which she looks forward and dedicates the piece to the generations to come. In this installation, several videos reflect the idea of impermanence and the difficulty of effecting change: a hand tries to wipe drops of water off a surface, but the drops are merely pushed around. On another screen, words from the second commandment are featured: “For I the lord thy God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” On one screen, the words are progressively hidden by naturally-shaped shadows. The last screen of the installment features Aylon, turned away from the camera, painting over the problematic words and phrases in the sentence with a thin pink liquid. The liquid covers the words transparently for a few seconds, only to drip, fade, and disappear.
Viewing this last work recently, I initially felt disheartened. I wanted the words of a jealous god to be edited to fit my idea of a benevolent feminist god––or maybe even no god. The constant loop of trying to cover up or wipe away the offending text never ends. Eventually, I realized this cycle doesn’t need to break. History cannot and should not be erased. No matter how many times you paint over the problematic words, they still exist and they still have consequences. After spending extensive time watching Aylon’s video in “Afterward: For the Children,” I was able to see that while the words didn’t disappear, their being highlighted was more important. Pointing out the incongruities between the principles of Judaism and the largely patriarchal and aggressive viewpoint that has persisted is a worthwhile undertaking. We can’t separate sacred texts from their history. For Helène Aylon, the religion she holds dear can make room for a more inclusive Judaism. She takes it upon herself to make that room, through her art. This same art helps me begin to appreciate the 5,000 year-old chain of history to which I am tied, without sacrificing the power of my feminist principles.