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Artists For A Cause

When I was searching for a feminist who I both relate to and differ from, I quickly stumbled upon installation and performance artist, Helène Aylon. I found that we share very similar beliefs, values, and principles, while having radically different backgrounds. I was also intrigued by how Helène balances two values, Orthodox Judaism and feminism, that on the surface seem to differ greatly. Helène has remained loyal to her faith while also challenging aspects of it that do not fit in with her feminist identity.

Brooklyn native Helène Aylon is both an Orthodox Jew and a feminist. Now, I know that when some people read this statement they may be taken aback. They may ask: “How can a woman be both Orthodox and feminist?” I’ll admit that I was a little surprised by this at first as well. It’s like taking a sip of orange juice right after brushing your teeth: the two just don’t agree. However, after reading more about Helène, I learned that I couldn’t be more wrong. Orthodox Judaisim and feminism can in fact coexist.

Helène grew up in a stereotypical Orthodox home. She lived in Brooklyn, attended an all girls Yeshiva, and even married a Rabbi. However, Helène defied these stereotypes when she decided to enroll as an art student at Brooklyn College, a decision that, at the time, was radical in the eyes of the Orthodox community. Fostering her passion for art, Helène eventually went on to teach at San Francisco State University, and at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

Helène’s first artistic claim to fame was a mural that told Jewish stories through women’s eyes at the Synagogue Library at JFK International Airport. Helène continued to combine her artistic talents with her feminist and Orthodox Jewish principles as she created more pieces. One of these pieces was the G-d Project, a nine part series in which Helène rejected the traditional patriarchal view of the Torah by, for example, calling out patriarchal language in the Torah.

Helène’s love for art is something to which I could immediately relate. Both Helène and I love to incorporate our feminism into our art. I recently created a series of pieces that commented on women’s roles in the fashion industry, and more specifically in New York fashion. I have never thought to incorporate my Judaism into my artwork, or at least I have never felt the need to do so. This may be because my Jewish experience is very different from Helène’s. I am a Conservative, borderline Reform Jew who has grown up attending machitza (divider between men and women)-free services. I have always been encouraged to go up on the Bima (podium or platform in a synagogue), even though my stage fright has prevented me from doing so. I have always been taught about both the Jewish founding fathers and the mothers. I never really had a huge problem with the Judaism I am used to, and therefore I never thought that it was important enough to incorporate into my artwork. Helène on the other hand did not grow up with the same egalitarian interpretation of Judaism. However, I respect and admire her practices (both her art and Jewish rituals) and her fight against sexism within traditional Judaism.

While my Jewish views are different from Helène’s, she and I have similar artistic views. Just like Helène, I think art can be utilized as a powerful weapon to fight various forms of oppression and injustice. I believe that art ought to be used more often in the everlasting fight for gender equality. Art can spark revolutionary ways of thinking. For example, look at the impressionist movement! It may just seem like the impressionists painted pretty landscapes and water lilies, but at the time it was one of the most radical art movements. The impressionist artists rejected the classical aesthetics of perfectionist art and created a realm of artistic open-ended interpretation. Helène’s work can be compared to this movement because it rejects traditional views of both women and Judaism. After learning more about Helène’s work, I feel inspired both to join her in creating art that fights against the patriarchy, and to create pieces that represent both my feminist and Jewish identities. More importantly, I hope that I can someday inspire others through drawing, painting, sculpture, or through other media, just like Helène did for me.

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Helene Aylon's Self Portrait, 2004
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Self portrait by Helene Aylon from “The Digital Liberation of G-d,” 2004, San Francisco JCC
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How to cite this page

Bickel, Ariela. "Artists For A Cause." 4 November 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 15, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/artists-for-cause>.

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