Helène Aylon | Afterword: For the Children

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This catalog has been created through the generosity of Suzanne Priebatsch in honor of Shulamit Reinharz for her many contributions to Brandeis University, to the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and to the Jewish community of Boston … and beyond.



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Internationally acclaimed Jewish feminist artist Helène Aylon presents her conclusion to “The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women,” her 20-year series highlighting the dismissal of women in Jewish traditions and text. In “Afterword: For the Children,” Aylon dedicates her finale in the series to future generations, challenging all who regard the Ten Commandments not to shrug off a dark foreboding that emanates, in her view, from the patriarchy — not from God. The text of the Second Commandment holds future generations responsible for the sins of their fathers. The artist’s examination of this text reveals a universal dilemma through its connection to contemporary policies and practices that shape the world our children will inherit. The concept of tikkun olam (correction of the world) holds significance in Aylon’s immersive digital installation, as her continuous attempt at “repairing” the revered text becomes a quiet yet assertive protest.

SUSAN METRICAN Rosalie and Jim Shane Curator & Director of the Arts



The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women 2002 Photographed at Rider University, New Jersey; also shown at Minneapolis College of Art and Design

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Nothing in my life was as scary as that first moment in 1990 when I actually put Genesis on a table, laid transparent paper over its holy pages and held a thick, pink marker to highlight my first word — “Dominion.” I was not nearly as scared in the ’80s when I dug the endangered earth from nuclear missile sites and carried it away in pillowcases for my “Earth Ambulance,” or when I brought Arab and Jewish women together to carry the stones the First Intifada had thrown. Only answering my mother’s question, “So what’s new?” as I sat in her Borough Park dining room amid photos of my Babas and Zaidas, could match that fright. Was I betraying the Mishpacha, my Shulamith School for Girls education, the Jewish Nation, the 5,000-year-old chain of history? But – I asked myself: 1. Isn’t it better for someone like me, who is passionate about Judaism, to be the one to own up about the passages that make me squirm, before a

Farrakhan finds these passages and says Jews are just fine with them? 2. Am I not continuing my own practice of rescue? I had “rescued” earth in pillowcases in the ’80s; I would “rescue” G-d with markers in the ’90s. As my ’70’s “Paintings That Change In Time” improve in time, this new leap of truth might be for the better. Once I convinced myself to begin, I glued the transparent overlay onto the remaining pages of Genesis. The edges of the pages rippled like the surface of a lake; the sound of my hands pressing the overlay was a celestial murmur. I was hooked for the next two decades, highlighting with markers, with magnifiers and digitally with shading pink on the computer. There were dedications to my Babas, my foremothers, my mother, the Women at the Wall, my 18-year-old self as a bride, my teachers and for women on a Beit Din as judges. Now, my afterword is for the children — born and unborn.



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David Sperber is an art historian, art critic and curator. This essay is based on a chapter in his PhD dissertation titled “Contemporary Jewish Feminist Art in the U.S. and Israel, 1990-2016,” written in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University under the guidance of art historian Professor Ruth E. Iskin and sponsored by the President’s Scholarship, Bar Ilan University; the Rotenstreich Fellowship; and the Memorial Foundation’s Doctoral Scholarship, New York. In 1998, when Leah Rabin was invited to the Jewish Museum in Baltimore to view a work dedicated to the memory of her late husband, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, she was expecting a marble portrait sculpture or a monument of some kind. However, what she saw was “The Liberation of G-d” (1990–96), an installation that dealt critically with the values transmitted in the Torah (fig. 1), by the prominent Jewish American artist Helène Aylon (b. 1931), whose work contends with feminist criticism of the canonical Jewish text1. This ambitious work was one of the first artworks who challenged the Jewish community with a radical discourse that objects to Judaism’s patriarchal tradition. It was the first in a series of radical installations Aylon has been creating since the 1990s and which the art historian Matthew 1  See Robert Berlind, “Deconstructing the Torah,” Art in America (1999): 142-47; Gloria F. Orenstein, “Torah Study, Feminism and Spiritual Quest in the Work of Five American Jewish Women Artists,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues 14 (2007): 101-5.

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Baigell asserts is the most radical Jewish art ever created2. The series was originally titled “The G-d Project: Trilogy and Epilogue.” In anticipation of the Hadassah-Brandeis exhibition at the Kniznick gallery at Brandeis University, which concludes this two-decade project, the series has been retitled “The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women” (1996–2016). “The Liberation of G-d” consisted of the “Chumash,” the Five Books of Moses, covered in transparent paper on which Aylon marked with a horizontal pink line the text’s misogynist and non-humanistic verses attributed to G-d (fig. 2). In 1996, it was shown at the Jewish Museum, New York, as part of the groundbreaking exhibition “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities,” organized by the museum’s curator Norman Kleeblatt, and subsequently was exhibited in a number of other museums in the U.S. (fig. 3). Aylon dedicated “The Liberation of G-d” to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. Aylon’s “Proclamation” featured the artist’s statement, in which she wrote: “…And I highlight over words of vengeance, deception, cruelty and misogyny, words attributed to G-d ... I do not change the 2  Matthew Baigell, “American Artists, Jewish Images,” New York: Syracuse University Press, 2006, p. 214.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 1: Helène Aylon and Leah Rabin, 1998. The Contemporary/Baltimore and the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Fig. 2 : Helène Aylon, “The Liberation of G-d” (details), 1990-96. Mixed media.

text, but merely look at this dilemma ... I ask: “When will G-d be rescued from ungodly projections in order to be G-d?” Although Aylon’s work was eventually shown in museums throughout the United States, the artist had originally intended for the work to be directed globally at the Jewish religious world3. Whenever “The Liberation of G-d” was shown in a museum, Aylon insisted that the curator assemble a panel of rabbis to discuss it. The meetings, held in the various museums between the rabbis and Aylon, were unusual, to say the least; a meeting between a radical artist and rabbis was practically unheard of, and certainly not in a museum. After Aylon’s work was exhibited in the Jewish Museum in New York, Rabbi Rolando Matalon invited Aylon to show the work at the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York, during the holiday of Shavuot when it is traditional to learn Torah all night. Aylon displayed the 54 books on a long table, and the congregants were invited to come up to the table to discuss their thoughts with the artist, thus bringing the work directly into the community (fig. 4). In doing so, she directed her work as a kind of social activism aimed at creating real change. 3  Helène Aylon, “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist,” New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2012, p. 228.

Following this performance art in the synagogue, Aylon and Rabbi Matalon held a long, in-depth private discussion of Aylon’s radical stance. She stressed the difficulty of reading verses filled with hatred, misogyny and discrimination as part of synagogue ritual, and strongly urged the rabbi to cancel the reading of the problematic verses. Rabbi Matalon refused, while emphasizing the fact that she had not actually erased verses4. To quote Matalon: “Your highlighting the text frees us to preserve the text ... We love it [the text]. But it is not G-d. It is not the ultimate.”5 Matalon insisted on continuing the traditional reading of the full biblical text in the synagogue without eliminating the offensive misogynistic verses, but suggested adding a statement before the Torah reading. The statement would clarify that the community reads the biblical verses as they are to preserve the connection to previous generations, but it does not mean that it accepts the text’s simplistic meaning. The dissonance between the rabbi’s position and the artist’s intention for the work was underscored by Aylon’s response: “Our forefathers were searching for God, but they found only themselves. They tried to speak for God, but spoke for themselves.” 4  Rolando Matalon and Helène Aylon, “The Liberation of G-d (from patriarchal projections): The Torah Reading in the Synagogue: To Read or Not to Read, That Is the Question — A Conversation Between Artist Helène Aylon and Rabbi Rolando Matalon,” Bridges 8 (2000): 19-24. 5  Ibid., 20, 22.


Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 3:

Helène Aylon, “The Liberation of G-d,” 1990-96, installation: 54 altered versions of the Five Books of Moses, velvet panels,

velvet covered pedestals, lamps, magnifying lenses, video monitors, dimensions variable, The Jewish Museum, New York (artwork © The Jewish Museum, New York, photograph by Will Brown). Fig. 4: Helène Aylon, “The Liberation of G-d,” 1997. Performance, the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York.

Aylon’s work constitutes a physical expression of the feminist thinker Mary Daly’s ironic comment in the 1970s: “If we remove all identifying marks of patriarchy from the Bible, only a thin book will remain.”6 In fact, Aylon’s tikkun (repair) is a response to Daly’s 1971 declaration that women cannot be part of institutionalized religion as it exists today, since “Singing sexist hymns, praying to a male god breaks our spirit, makes us less than human. The crushing weight of this tradition, of this power structure, tells us that we do not even exist.”7 Unlike Daly, who called for women to leave the church and establish a post-Christian religion, Aylon intended to create change from within. In practice, it is precisely the fact that the artist did not erase the biblical verses, but marked them instead, is what allowed for the fruitful discussion among the rabbinical world. Aylon expresses her criticism in the name of the religion and culture to which she herself belongs8.

She has begun the emergence of recent criticism among Jewish religious feminist artists. Aylon’s art is not satisfied merely with image, poetics or social allegory; it is not only symbolic but is possessed of its own generative nature. Leah Rabin did not understand, at first, the connection of the exhibition to the political assassination of her husband9; however in the dedicatory text to the memory of the murdered prime minister, the artist explained the link between the assassination and its religious motivation, which had been based on a fundamentalist reading of the non-humanistic, patriarchal biblical texts. That work and this present one —“Afterword: For the Children” (2016), which concludes Aylon’s “G-d Project” and to which this catalogue is dedicated — are reminders that when a culture’s founding myths embrace non-humanistic messages, it is no wonder that a fundamentalist reading of those texts could lead to the committing of such a heinous act.

6  Quoted in Judith Plaskow, “Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective,” New York: Harper Collins, 1990, p. 14. See more Hannah Kehat, “What Do the Open-Eyed Faith of Religious Feminists and the Existentialist Faith of Kierkegaard Have in Common?,” Psychology Research 4/12 (2014): 1020–1027. 7  Quoted in Ursula King, “Women and Spirituality: Voices of Protest & Promise,” Houndmills: Macmillan, 1989, p. 170. 8  On this topic see Tanya Zion Waldoks, “Politics of Devoted Resistance: Agency, Feminism and Religion Among Orthodox Agunah Activists in Israel,” Gender & Society 29.1 (2015): 73–97.

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9  Jean Marbella, “A World Apart, Together in Hope,” The Sun (June 10, 1997).


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Helène Aylon is a multimedia, issue-oriented artist who studied with Ad Reinhardt at Brooklyn College, graduating in 1960. In the 1970s, her process paintings alluding to the body and the aspect of change were shown at Betty Parsons Gallery and White Columns “112 Workshop.” Three of these paintings, also known as “The Breakings,” were later acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Aylon refers to this series as Bio-logical Feminism. In the 1980s, Aylon created an Earth Ambulance, driving it to military sites nationwide. The earth near these bases was “rescued” in pillowcases scripted with women’s dreams and nightmares pertaining to nuclear war. It was brought to the mass rally for disarmament at the U.N. in 1982 before being shown at Creative Time at the end of the Cold War and then acquired by the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art. Aylon refers to this era as Eco-logical Feminism.

In the 1990s, Aylon sought to “rescue” God (“whatever God may be”) from patriarchal projections. The Warhol Museum borrowed “The Liberation of G-d” that had been acquired by the Jewish Museum. This began “The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women,” which was shown at the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles) and the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco.) Now in 2017, “Afterword: For the Children” is the finale to “The G-d Project: Nine Houses without Women.” Aylon sees this as Theo-logical Feminism. Aylon has received numerous awards throughout her career, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2016. She is the author of a memoir, “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life As a Feminist Artist,” published by the Feminist Press. Her exhibition “Afterword: For the Children” will travel to the Jerusalem Biennale 2017 opening on October 1, 2017.

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The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women 2000 Photographed at Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, Washington, D.C.; also shown at Borowsky Gallery, Philadelphia, with a video component shown at Ein Harod, Israel. The video component is currently on view at Museum on the Seam, Israel, through December 2017.

2016 Metal 73” x 48.5”




Helène Aylon’s exhibition was commissioned in honor of HBI Founder and Director Shulamit Reinharz, who will retire at the end of June. The exhibition and programs are made possible thanks to the generous support of Elaine Reuben, Arnee & Walter Winshall, Suzanne Priebatsch, and Arthur & Carol Spinner.



HBI staff members and leaders Shulamit Reinharz, Sylvia Barack Fishman, Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Melissa Grossman, Nancy Leonard, Deborah Olins, Amy Powell and Zanefa Walsh Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center staff, scholars and members of the Exhibitions Committee Linda Bond, Deborah Goodwin, Milagro Lopez, Abby Rosenberg, Karin Rosenthal, Rosalie Shane, Vaughn Sills, Annie Storr, Rebecca Strauss, Rosa Taormina and Andrea Waldstein Brandeis University faculty, staff and students Matthew Ashland, Pavla Berghen-Wolf, Jack Bianchi, Gemma Curnin, Marilyn Denton, Ryan Donahue, Sean Downey, Christine Dunant, Miriam Hiersteiner, Sarah Hough, Peter Murphy, Timothy O’Neil, John Pizzi, Ingrid Schorr, Rachel Snyderman, Jennifer Stern, Cathy Mallen Webber and Deborah Wieder And Jennifer Baumgardner (director of the Feminist Press), Barbara Bernstein, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Chabad Rabbi Peretz Chein, Regina DeLuise, David Garratt, Sally Gottesman, Sayief Leshaw, Sheila Pleasants, Peter Samis (curator at SFMoMA), Susan Sandholland and David Sperber

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Photo courtesy of Regina DeLuise and Benrubi Gallery 2016 inner covers Photo courtesy of Helène Aylon


Founded in 1997, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute develops fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender worldwide by producing and promoting scholarly research, artistic projects and public engagement. In 2013, the National Council for Research on Women selected the HBI to receive the National Award for Excellence in Research. The world’s only academic center of its kind, the HBI provides research resources and programs for scholars, students and the public. The institute publishes books and a journal, convenes international conferences and local programming, and offers competitive grant and internship programs. All images courtesy of the artist