Whatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist
by Helène Aylon
Press: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Date: May 2012
Reviewed by: Lenore Weiss
I stumbled upon Aylon’s memoir in the Jewish Museum of San Francisco. I was on a Jewish reading jag, had just finished drunken angel by Alan Kaufman about his struggle with alcohol addiction and how he came to embrace his Jewish roots as the son of a Holocaust survivor. Essays by Abraham Joshua Herschel were stacked on my night table. However, Aylon’s book helped me name something I needed to understand. Hers is a beautiful work of art all by itself, illustrated throughout with art from different periods of her life.
The artist was born Helène Greenfield in Boro Park, Brooklyn the firstborn (although she explains that if the oldest child happens to be a girl she is never referred to as the firstborn, an honor reserved for male children), in an extended family of Orthodox Jews who were conversant with Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages. Her grandmother Baba, keeps a shisel of water under her bed “…so when she awoke every morning she could immediately bend to dip her fingers into the dish to say the morning prayer…”
Aylon’s early life is marked by ritual: every Friday night, silver Shabbos candlesticks decorate her girlhood, followed by the fragrant spices of Havdalah boxes to usher in the new week. She receives an observant Jewish education at Shulamith School for Girls where she memorizes poetry by Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who came to be known as Israel’s national poet. But throughout her early years, Aylon is troubled by how women don’t exist as equals in observant Jewish life, unclean when they are menstruating, also termed as nkava (hole). Her questioning gathers in layers: a rapist may stay with his victim if he does not come near her for three days so as to become holy to his god; men recite a prayer every morning to thank god that they were not born a woman.
She marries a rabbi and becomes a rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife). They move to Montreal and have two children. But tragedy strikes. After five years of marriage and at age twenty-five, her husband Mandel dies of cancer. Aylon now begins to die to herself, sells her husband’s Yiddish books that allows her to purchase an encyclopedia set for her son. She anoints herself with a new last name. Instead of being Mrs. Fisch, she creates:
“…my new name would also be my old name: Helène Aylon. Aylonna is Hebrew for Helène. I shortened it to Aylon.”
This is the author’s first step toward feminism and claiming her role as an artist. She also struggles with her dual role as mother and visionary, how do you find time to dedicate to each? Helped by the support of a growing women’s movement to reconcile these roles, she signs up for art classes at Brooklyn College where her teacher, Ad Reinhardt, an abstract expressionist, introduces her to Mark Rothko who invites her to his studio in Manhattan. They talk about the work of other Jewish artists like Barnett Newman, and the philosophy of Martin Buber. The accomplished artist and the young student discover a similar vocabulary based on a shared vision of Jewish spirituality. Three weeks after their discussion, Rothko committed suicide.
Aylon continues to form her vision. Her first commission is to paint a mural for the Jewish chapel at JFK Airport. “I wanted to paint not blue and black and red but blueness, blackness, and redness.”
Her children grow up and she keeps working. Her relationship with her mother, Etta, remains at her directional center; she pushes art toward new boundaries.
Although she marks new feminist ground as a Jewish artist; it is Aylon’s roots and knowledge of Judaism that allows her to stretch the cord as far as it will go before breaking, which is what her early work explores—the place where things change and turn into something else. On a fluke, Aylon moves to Northern California and stays there for ten years where she explores materials like oil and tar –materials that change on canvas.
One of her influences is Georgia O’Keefe. In discussing her own process Aylon says, “The empty spaces in between the breaking are joined, one negative space is merging with another to create a new form. These spaces are like the pockets of silence the Kabbalah speaks of.”
She collaborates with other women including the writer and poet Grace Paley on projects like Sand Gatherings, works with Palestinian and Israeli women to create stone sacs, and hangs pillowcases at army depots with anti-war activists. Her project, The Liberation of G-d where she redacts the Five Books of Moses to highlight words, sentences, and sections that she finds questionable in light of a more progressive ethical world-view, becomes part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco and travels to other areas, including Baltimore where in 1997 her work is viewed by Leah Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s widow.
Aylon’s final redaction is the hyphen in G-d’s name that Orthodox Judaism requires to be written as such because the maker’s name is not to be uttered or spelled out. She allows light to pass threw the hyphen which is covered with a pink filter and comments:
“This delicate pink dash sums up my striving for the inclusion of women. It is what has been missing since Abraham discovered monotheism. I had inserted a feminine presence into the Godhead. If I had to summarize the essence of my twenty-year endeavor to liberate G-d, I could point to that one small dash.”
Lenore Weiss serves as copy editor for the Blue Lyra Review. Lenore has published two books of poetry: “Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island” (West End Press, 2012) and “Two Places” (Kelsay Books, 2014). Her blog resides at www.lenoreweiss.com.