Vox Tablet

Helène Aylon’s Journey From Rebbetzin to Internationally Acclaimed Feminist Artist

The irreverent 82-year-old left Orthodox Borough Park long ago. But she’s still wrestling with the rituals of her past.

September 9, 2013

Helène Aylon grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in a tight-knit world of Orthodox families. From early on, she was a bit of a rebel, but that didn’t stop her from following the path prescribed for her. At 18, she married a rabbi, and they had two children. Then, when she was just 25, her husband fell ill; she was a widow by 30.

This was in 1960. The assumption then was that a woman in her position would marry her husband’s brother. Instead, Aylon became an artist. Her work, as she explains in a memoir published last year and titled Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, engaged with the liberation movements of her time—women from patriarchy, the colonized from colonizer, the earth from nuclear devastation—until she tackled the ultimate liberation: that of God from man. Now, at 82, Aylon looks back at a remarkable career. Her work has been shown at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and throughout the world. In fact, there’s something of an Aylon revival right now; her work is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as part of the group show called “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art,” and she’s included in “The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat,” at Hebrew Union College in New York. She’s also giving readings from her memoir this fall, at the Jewish Museum in New York and elsewhere.

This past spring, Julie Burstein visited Aylon at her loft in lower Manhattan to talk about her Orthodox upbringing, her evolution as a feminist artist, and her enduring (if sometimes fraught) relationship with her mother, who died in 1998 at the age of 100. Burstein is an independent radio producer and the author of Spark: How Creativity Works. [Running time: 19:35.]

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