Whatever is Contained Must Be Released, by Helène Aylon. The Feminist Press. 287 pages. Trade paperback (oversized). $29.95.
Helène Aylon’s astonishing book balances the two dimensions of her life that are expressed in its subtitle: “My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist.” It’s a magical book, not nearly as egocentric or “in your face” as one might expect at first glance. Thoughtful, properly proud, and modestly grateful for the distance she has traveled on her unusual journey, Aylon mixes facts, feelings, and meditation. Over and over, she adjusts the tension between these two identities, identities which paradoxically poison and nourish one another.
Young Helène loved her traditional household in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. Even when she was feeling stifled or misperceived, which was often, she knew that her parents loved her deeply and had her best interests at heart. While her mother lacked the worldliness that this young girl craved and eventually attained, there was no doubt about her mother’s essential goodness and the depth of her passionate caring.
This particular Orthodox community invested significant resources in the education of its young females. Helène absorbed an abundance of Jewish learning; however, there was little – as a female – that she could do with it. And she had plenty of questions that would not be truly heard or respectfully answered. Before she knew what feminism was, she was asking feminist questions. At bottom, the question is: how can a woman belong to a religion that disrespects (or seems to disrespect) women in its sacred writings and in its traditions?
Helène married young (a successful arranged marriage), had children young, but was already drifting toward the educational opportunities that would stimulate her self-creation as an artist. This self-creation involved selecting her own last name. When her husband, a rabbi, died in his thirties, the young mother could not continue to wear her partly hypocritical mask of Orthodoxy. She admitted to, and began to act out her “post-Orthodoxy” self, moving more and more into the world of art and artists.
She liberated herself socially and intellectually, while never forgetting the warm enclosure of her childhood home and community. Fighting with Jewish attitudes toward women, especially their place (or lack thereof) in ritual life and in scriptural modeling, she found a second religion in Feminism – and in time she became a strong force in this arena. Her artworks, primarily multi-media installations, expressed this theme, as well as those of environmentalism and anti-war activism.
A major part of her journey as an artist took place in California, where she encountered many kindred spirits and forged mutually supportive relationships. However, Boro Park remained in her thoughts, as did her love-hate relationship with Jewish wisdom and – as she felt it – Jewish misogyny.
In what is roughly the second half of the book, Aylon’s discussion of her artistic experimentation and growth is bolstered by a generous array of photographs that give readers some idea of the power of her installation art. Over and over again, her particular post-Orthodox feminism combines with her other themes in highly original, powerful, and daring visual compositions, works that are challenges both to her and to those who behold them. Some are inspired by Kabbalah, the mainstream of Jewish mysticism. Others involve technologies and materials that allow the installations to undergo change over time. Still others enact curative processes, such as redeeming the earth (in Jewish tradition, Tikkun Olam).
Many of these projects, — like the sequences that assemble sacs of sand, stone, and earth – required not only visionary insight and purpose, but also physical exertion and potential confrontation. Her Earth Ambulance project, carried out near nuclear power facilities and military sites, expressed and connected anti-war and conservationist perspectives. For Aylon, such battles are truly women’s work: housekeeping, nurturing, and healing on a grand scale.
More and more, her achievement was recognized with well-received gallery exhibitions and exhibitions in public spaces. However, finding display venues for installation art is often far more difficult than finding space on a gallery wall. Often, Aylon means to be shocking – shocking enough to wake people out of their slumbers and force them to confront major issues.
The ongoing, mutating story of Helène Aylon’s relationship with her mother and her Orthodox heritage binds together the passages of this attractive, uplifting, and powerful memoir.
This review appears in the February 2013 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).
Reprinted with a new title in February 21, 2013 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly: Florida Weekly – Aylon