Highlighting the Torah
Jews love to interpret Judaism — just take a look at the rabbinical commentary in the Mishna and Gemara, or take a seat at a Shabbat table any Friday night.
Since the mid-1990s, New York artist Helène Aylon has produced work interpreting the Torah through a feminist lens, and with a pink highlighter. Her installation art piece “The Liberation of G-d,” which opens at the Andy Warhol Museum May 8 as the second in the museum’s “The Word of God” series, is a collection of the Five Books of Moses — in which Aylon highlighted any passages or words she deemed misogynist or homophobic.
Assembled and created from 1990 to 1996, “The Liberation of G-d” represents Aylon’s struggle to find her place as a woman within the ultra-Orthodox community in which she grew up.
Aylon “loved reading Rashi” growing up, she told the Chronicle. “I married a rabbi when I was 18. I wanted more and more to be purer, to know more and to really feel [my Judaism] more deeply.”
But when her husband died just 12 years later, in 1961, Aylon found herself at a crossroads. Visiting the Chabad house in Berkley, Calif., several years after her husband’s death, “I lit two candles and tears started flowing out of me. I had to stop my tears, but I didn’t have a Kleenex,” she said, “So I went over the mechitza. There were all these men in their exclusivity, huddled together like it was their religion and we were behind the curtain.”
“That was the moment that Jewish feminism came upon me,” she said. “It allowed me to liberate myself.”
In the 1970s, Aylon became a leader of the process art movement, in which the creation of the art, not the art itself, became the focus. In the 1980s she embraced anti-war and anti-nuclear art, and by the 1990s she dove into her feminist religious art, much of which took shape as multimedia and installation art.
Aylon sees her work as separated into three phases: the body, the earth and God.
“The next 10 years will be something else,” she said.
Aylon, now 80, is proud that her “Liberation of G-d” piece, which has traveled to six different museums, will arrive at the Warhol next week representing the Jewish side of the museum’s “The Word of God” series, which also included Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an.” And she wants to add to the work that has made her one of the most cutting edge Jewish artists in the country.
Arriving alongside “The Liberation of G-d” is a multimedia work called “The Unmentionable,” which sees Aylon taking her qualms with the Torah to a different level.
The video installation is Aylon’s “epiphany for solving” the question of what to do with the contentious passages in the Torah. With the Hebrew name of God printed across her forehead, Aylon appears staring directly at the viewer, her highlighted phrases flashing across her face.
“It could be seen as blasphemy or devotional,” she explained. “The fact that (God’s name) is unutterable and silent is very spiritual to me. It’s genderless, without master. So I put it on my forehead. That was my self-portrait.”
Additionally, Aylon hopes to create a small, new work just for the Warhol.
Near her installation, “there are three little windows,” she said. “I’m going to cover the two end windows with the letters G and D. The center will be covered except for a slit, so the sunlight comes through that dash. I always write God as I was taught, G-d. That sunlight will be my eternal light, my ner tamid.”
For Aylon, pieces like “The Liberation of G-d” and “The Unmentionable” are not to change Jewish texts, but to offer another route of understanding in a modern context.
“If I read somewhere that my father had said some of these things (written in the Torah) about women, I would scream,” she said. “I’d say he never said that. So the way I stay in Judaism is I don’t stop highlighting.”
The work has garnered vastly different responses, “from women weeping, saying thank God you did this,” said Aylon, “to hate letters, saying it was arrogant, ‘how could you.’ But I trust Judaism.”
Her work is displayed in museums, not synagogues, for a reason, said Aylon.
“In a museum, not a Reform or ultra-Orthodox shul, this work can bring all these factions together,” she said. “A setting like the Warhol is amazing, right between Andy’s electric chairs and soup cans.”
Want to go?
“The Word of G-d: Helène Aylon,
The Liberation of God and
Opens May 8 through June 26
The Andy Warhol Museum,
117 Sandusky St., Northside
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)