Standing in front of her work, “The Liberation of G-D,” artist Helene Aylon has been spotted: 30 women from Long Island on a tour of the Jewish Museum’s multi-artist exhibit “Too Jewish?” descend, showering her with gratitude and admiration. They are glowing.
Aylon’s work has had a powerful effect on women. Her new show, which travels to the San Francisco Jewish Museum in November, quite literally underscores their absence in the Torah; it also posits that the cruelty and vengefulness attributed to God are in fact a creation of man. With pink highlighter in hand, she has marked the five books of the Torah to “liberate” God from every assumption that this text put forth. She writes.
I highlight onto the parchment / that covers each page; / between words in the empty spaces / where a female presence has been omitted/… and I highlight over words of/ vengeance, deception, cruelty, and misogyny, / words attributed to / G-D.
The result is, true to its title, liberating. Through a double arch of purple velvet curtains, you enter a quiet space filled with highlighted texts ready to be studied: a feminist beit midrash. The five books of Moses, in English and Hebrew, sit on velvet-covered stands. Each page is covered with translucent parchment that must be smoothed down in order to read the text. The sound of crinkling parchment, prerecorded and played back on a sound track, grows louder as visitors gather to study the texts.
One woman asks the artist if the wavy parchment is reminiscent of the sea. Aylon smiles. “That is beautiful,” she says. “Thank you.” She explains her own reasons for choosing the material: parchment emphasizes timelessness; it protects the text; it buckles, making the text below cloudy at first, and then clear. Finally, the parchment makes a crisp noise as the pages are turned. “I am interested in sound,” says Aylon, “in the ways that sounds can awaken, like the shofar.”
It is an awakening of consciousness that Aylon hopes to initiate with her pink pen. Every time the text reads,”And God said to Moses,” Aylon highlights it, questioning. Every time the text lists a father begetting a son, Aylon adds a pink slash. “There must have been great women,” she tells the group, “but they are lost in this book, they’re not here.”
Raised an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, Aylon has engaged in Torah study all her life. She still reads the Torah aloud to her mother, nearly blind, when she returns to her Brooklyn home. But when she began a decade ago to create her own midrash — what she calls a “visual theology”—her family was not pleased. Her mother “thought it was terrible,” Aylon recalls. “But now it’s in the Jewish Museum, so that makes it kosher.” Aylon’s dedication of the work, to her fifth grade teacher and to the principal of the Shulamith School for Girls, in Borough Park, reflects both her Orthodoxy and her doubt: “In those days, in their lives, while instilling a love of Chumash and Rashi, they also encouraged Borough Park girls to ask questions.”
A self-defined eco-feminist, Aylon over the years has focused her work on nuclear disarmament, environmental disaster, the Lebanon war and women in the former Soviet Union. She also consistently has used it to build bridges between communities of women. In 1981 she brought Israeli and Arab women together to gather stones in sacks in an Arab area of Haifa: The sacks were for the wandering Jew, the stones for the common ground between the women. In 1982 she again bridged a divide, creating two miles of pillow cases that bore dreams and nightmares written by American and Soviet women.
When “The Liberation of G-D” opened at the Jewish Museum in New York in March, Aylon was prepared for controversy. At the end of her exhibit she placed a white notebook, to give visitors a chance to respond. One wrote, “If you don’t like the Torah, go read another book.” More often, people offered praise: “I thank you for myself, my grandmothers, and my mother, but mostly for my two daughters.”
Hours after the Long Island tour left the museum, a young man reading through Aylon’s highlighted texts approached her with congratulations and then asked, “Why concentrate on the bad, on what’s missing? Why not celebrate the good?” Aylon answered with a sigh. “My nephew, a rabbi, asks me the same thing. I tell him I did that all my life, I just can’t ignore it all anymore.”