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Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released

My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist

Helène Aylon

Publication Year: 2012

Helène Aylon was a good Jewish girl raised in orthodox Brooklyn, married to a rabbi, and another of two when her world split apart. A widow at thirty, she broke free of tradition to become an eco-feminist artist whose work deals in transgressive images about war and peace, women’s bodies, women and god, and the deeply religious world that continues to influence her work to this day. The memoir is a charming dash through the years of a structured orthodox life and the artistic life that feed her to question the misogyny of her beloved religion. It is also a tell-all about the art world, with fascinating details about luminaries such as Ana Mendieta, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Betty Parsons. Examples of Aylon’s work included are her early doors for the Jewish chapel at JFK airport, her peace pillowcases (including one worn by Grace Paley), and her current search for the links between feminism and Judaism

Published by: The Feminist Press

Series: Jewish Women Writers

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-4

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pp. 5-12

After three days and nights of labor my mother gave birth to me at the Israel Zion Hospital in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I’m spelling it “b-o-r-o” instead of “borough” because that’s closer to the Hebrew word borei in the prayer Borei Pri Ha’etz (creator of the fruit of the tree) and the members of my family would never take a bite out of an apple without mumbling that prayer first....

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The Women's Section

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pp. 13-16

It was on our street in Boro Park that my father, Uncle Abe, Uncle Morris, and other shul people, like Louie Cohen and Julius Bienenfeld, would ceremoniously walk with a special Torah that had been rescued from the remnants of devastated Europe in the early forties. They walked it to the Young Israel shul on Fiftieth Street. The most heavenly privilege, from the look on the faces of those in the processional, was to be the one who held the Torah...

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My Notebooks

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pp. 17-22

AT AGE THIRTEEN, before graduation time was upon us at Shulamith School, I brazenly announced that I was going to be an artist and that I would go to the Music and Art High School in Manhattan. I got this idea from watching an older girl named Delores and her friend, Betty Grossman, draw pictures sitting on the porch two doors down...

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My Marriage Bed and My Clean Days

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pp. 23-43

Growing up, I had a task to complete each Friday as part of our preparations for Shabbos: I tore a roll of toilet paper into individual squares, since we were forbidden to tear on Shabbos. I neatly tore every piece on the perforated line the way my father neatly tore along the perforated line of his telephone bills. Then I stacked the squares in a pile. My other job...

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My Marriage Contract

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pp. 44-52

All during the shloshim (first thirty days of mourning) I received calls in the middle of the night and in the wee hours of the morning from Shlomo Carlebach, a popular rabbi and musician, who would sing to me over the telephone after his concerts all over the world. Before he became famous he had played his guitar...

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pp. 53-61

Ad Reinhardt had come to see my work in the airport chapel. He remained an important influence on my way of looking at art, seeking a revelation. You look at a Reinhardt black painting, and after staring a while, you can discern a glimmer of color emerging, as confounding as the first glimmer of light...

Paintings That Change

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pp. 62-65

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pp. 66-69

In the summer of 1973 I met with the art dealer Betty Parsons in her Bridgehampton summer home to show her my work. I came with only the very first of my Paintings That Change in Time, one of the smallest. I wasn’t going to show up schlepping a big package in my usual bag lady persona...

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The Breakings

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pp. 70-82

After The Breakings, I was not sure where my work would go. I wanted my focus to be less metaphoric. The Breakings were clearly about a woman’s body, one that was not defined within the typical male realm of understanding. I became one of a group of Berkeley feminists who met together to discuss various issues...

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Sand Carrying

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pp. 83-87

WHEN I SAW how the California women had readily participated in the Sand Carrying, I thought, what if I could bring women from warring nations together. I wanted to try this with Arab and Jewish women. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I traveled to Israel. I visited women’s centers...

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Earth Ambulance

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pp. 88-94

THE NEXT YEAR, in 1983, a group of women from Holland and France joined me to camp again in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, also across from the UN, for fourteen days and nights. Nearly one thousand pillowcases from around the world were strung up, all of us sleeping beneath this linen shelter...

Stretched Canvas

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pp. 95-96

Current: two sacs en route

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pp. 97-99

Post - - - - Script

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pp. 100

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Bridge of Knots

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pp. 101-107

I used to feel that I could never reach out the way my mother did to everyone who crossed her path. Mother did good big time, capital “G.” As a child I did not feel that intrinsic goodness within me. Mother never particularly demanded it, since, as Itte, de’gitte, it was up to her to give...

The Liberation of G-d

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pp. 108

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The Partition is in Place, but the Service Can't Begin

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pp. 109

When I left my California studio in 1980, the land became an outdoor studio. I was looking toward the land for hints about ancient foremothers—a footstep in the sand, a bead, a remnant of a torn page. I was identifying the very body of woman in the body of the land, inserting my body into vast spaces...


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pp. 111-112

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pp. 113-117

The year after my return to New York, 1983, in the Earth Ambulance, Betty Parsons died. As I walked down the steps of the Metropolitan Museum where Edward Albee had organized a memorial for Betty, I realized that I felt lost without her backing. There was no way I could explain myself...

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Epilogue: Alone with My Mother

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pp. 118-120

If I felt angst about showing The Liberation of G–d in a venue like The Jewish Museum, I was sick with worry about the museum’s plans to travel the piece to secular sites like the Los Angeles Hammer Museum. I feared this work would not be good for the Jews. When Flora Biddle, granddaughter...

All Rise

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pp. 121


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pp. 122

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Self-Portrait: The Unmentionable

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pp. 123-128

At age ninety-eight, my mother moved out of Boro Park, away from Forty-Seventh Street, away from the window that looked out on the solitary maple tree that turned a sunny green at the start of spring. She moved to North Hollywood, where she would sit under palm trees looking...

Acknowledgements, About the Author, Further Reading, Series Information

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pp. 129-132

E-ISBN-13: 9781558617698
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558617681

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: b &w photos
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: First Edition
Series Title: Jewish Women Writers

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Subject Headings

  • Aylon, Heléne, 1931-.
  • Jews -- New York (State) -- New York -- Biography.
  • Jewish women -- New York (State) -- New York -- Biography.
  • Painters -- New York (State) -- New York -- Biography.
  • Jewish painters -- New York (State) -- New York -- Biography.
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