HBI and JWA Interns Explore Aylon's Art

June 19, 2017

By Elana Luban

What happened when interns and staff from the HBI and the Jewish Women's Archive gathered to reflect on the text of the second commandment using the backdrop of Helène Aylon's provocative exhibition in the Kniznick Gallery, "Afterword: For the Children?"

They brought a modern twist to ancient text, examining "consequences" into future generations that ranged from illegal immigration to pollution to incarceration.

Aylon's exhibit specifically reflects on the words in the last part of the second commandment (Exodus 20:5) that "you shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me."

The exhibit features the culmination of Aylon's "The God Project," focused on the reinterpretation of the Bible and God, and the recognition that certain attitudes expressed in the Old Testament are reflexive of ancient patriarchal views and not of God himself. This collection is also the 10th and final installment of a project titled "Nine Houses without Women" that Aylon created over 20 years.

The group discussed the symbolism behind Aylon's pieces, much of the art representing an attempt to "rescue" God as well as the endless process of change and reconstruction. Projected onto a white wall are several short videos of Aylon in which she is portrayed in action — painting over Biblical verses in a pink color that some interpreted as reminiscent of blood, and endlessly wiping away "tears" from a metal panel, which dissolve momentarily only to bead up anew on the surface. The group discussed the sort of feelings it evoked. Is the impermanence of Aylon's actions a reflection of desperation and hopelessness or of brave and constant effort and reform despite long-standing notions pulling in the opposite direction?

Opposite the wall of videos is another work, breathtaking in its simplicity, called the "Air Commandments," a metal frame in the shape of the Ten Commandments tablets that reveal the interpretability, lightness and flexibility of the Torah, in contrast to deep-rooted convictions about its rigidity, noted Susan Metrican, the Rosalie and Jim Shane curator and director of the Arts at the Kniznick Gallery. Some, however, said they initially interpreted the "Air Commandments" as symbols of "emptiness." Was Aylon trying to convey that patriarchal attitudes would render the Torah hollow? This made for a fascinating and lively discussion, which led into conversation about the theme of the text-based study session, the second commandment.

Several interns have spent time walking through the gallery over the last week and commented that they enjoyed the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the exhibit and the text during the interactive study session led by Rachel Putterman, HBI's internship academic advisor and a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College.

Each HBI intern paired with one or two of the Jewish Women's Archive interns, building camaraderie while dissecting the controversies underlying this Biblical text. How does one translate the word "kana" — does this mean God was zealous, or impassioned? And how does one translate the words "avot" and "banim" — as "parents" and "children," or (as the literal meaning implies) "fathers" and "sons," making this an ultimately patriarchy-saturated verse? Why is God depicted here as so angry and vengeful? And finally is this statement a contradiction of later verses, specifically in Deuteronomy, which clearly claim that children will never be held accountable for the transgressions of their ancestors? The room buzzed with the sound of young women exploring ancient texts, stimulated by the issues raised in Aylon's profound art.

Several interns brought relatable examples: a parent who goes to prison does, in some ways, force his child to suffer as a result of the punishment for his/her sin, not as a result of the sin itself. Other examples are parents who bring up their children in environments that foster the development of bad habits or addictions, which later pass on to the children — an instance in which the "sin" itself is passed down.

Others discussed pollution to the water supply or other parts of the environment as sins that would have consequences out to several generations. Still, others looked at the issue of illegal immigration. If a parent comes to the U.S. illegally, do the children suffer any consequences of that action? What if the parent is deported, but the child can stay in the U.S. Or, what if the child came in illegally, too? Should they have to give up the only life they have ever known for a decision made by a parent? Are these "punishments" that might pass to several generations?

As women who see themselves deeply connected to and responsible for the future, the interns at HBI and JWA related to Aylon's persistence in the endless struggle of confronting issues of patriarchy and misogynistic language in the Torah and working to better understand and reform it.

Aylon painted over the Biblical texts and we are too. Both HBI and JWA are dedicated to reinterpreting ancient texts through the lens of gender and today's issues. And, just like "Air Commandments," our discussion blew new life, values of understanding, reform and open-mindedness, into ancient texts and themes.

Elana LubanElana Luban, HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern, is a junior at Stern College for Women.