Pushing Spiritual Boundaries
Harrison Yahreahkh Sharkovskii, member of far-left group Jewdas, on modern spirituality and why religion needs to buck its ideas up
There are a multitude of ways in which we can express ourselves, who we feel we are and what role we take on in this world. While religion and spirituality are often very closely linked, they’re not synonymous. Religion often revolves around worshipping a divine entity and tells its followers the right or true way of living, whereas spirituality encourages an individual to look within and find a path that is reflective of their identity. And much like self-expression of one’s identity can change throughout a lifetime, so can spirituality.
A new study has found that young Europeans within the ages 16-29, are the least religious generation, with 70% of British people having zero religious affiliations. This comes as no surprise when we find ourselves living in a society that celebrates RuPaul's Drag Race, a drag queen show on mainstream TV, perhaps the biggest queerest TV show at the moment, while most religious groups still preach against any kind of expression of homosexuality. Younger generations who have had much more contact with queerness don’t feel they can support organised religion that preaches conservative and old-fashioned values.
"Mainstream Judaism is not representative of Judaism as a race and religion, or, British Jews, or gender within Judaism"
Harrison Yahreahkh Sharkovskii, a new member of left-wing political group Jewdas explains how he first became involved with the group because they offered a form of judaism that openly welcomed queerness, and was interested in listening to marginalised voices. “Mainstream Judaism is really right wing. The Board of Deputies — which is essentially the main representative body for British Jews and I'm pretty sure they meet with the PM once a week, so you know it’s significant —I’m generalising massively, but they're pro-zionist, generally right-wing and they're white-passing Ashkenazi men. It's not representative of Judaism as a race and religion, or, British Jews, or gender within Judaism.” He continues, “What really drew me in at my first session was the diversity of people. Each person not only looked different but was fundamentally different, had completely different roots, European, South-American, Asian, the African. Essentially, I suddenly realised that there are so many possibilities in terms of what makes you Jewish and what Jewishness can be, and each of those possibilities is as valid as the other one. There's no centralised right way to be Jewish.”
Jewdas offers people of many different backgrounds a structured but open-ended belief system to contextualise their thoughts and feelings about society. It’s not too different to liking a particular type of music, or dressing a certain way. It’s just a system of expression and camaraderie, a community.
Traditionally Judaism is done by the book, but Jewdas often reinterprets it. Practices like Shabbat are altered to fit a contemporary lifestyle. “Shabbat was first brought about by Jews, when they were freed from slavery and their oppressors. They created this time in which, they were actively opposing that form of life, which they had been subjected to for so many years by not doing anything like that. Some of the original rules included not being allowed to use labels with holes in them, for example, or abstaining from separating solids and water. To make it applicable to our lives today, we discuss using electricity, and even going on your phones, but perhaps utilising this time to learn and reflect about other oppressors and oppressed people, especially ones that have been wiped out of history books by white imperialism.”
"Jewdas get stigmatised and attacked as being radical, and it's like a bad and scary word; but everything Jewdas does is surely good"
Religious festivals and celebrations are often amended to include revolutionary yiddish and Russian songs from the early 20th century, in remembrance of the many thousand Russian Jews that were massacred in the anti-Jewish pogroms. “The main critics of Jewdas hate that. They say it’s blasphemous and heresy. But essentially it’s the politics with which they disagree.”
Last month, Jeremy Corbyn came under attack by the president of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush who claimed that the Labour leader had nothing positive to say about Israel and was therefore inherently anti-semitic. Corbyn faced further criticism from Arkush as well as non-Jewish MPs, when he attended an event organised by Jewdas, who according to Sharkovskii, are often called “bad Jews.” Metro and The Sun reported on the group’s radical, almost anarchist views, calling Corbyn’s decision to meet with Jewdas “irresponsible and dangerous”, and “extraordinarily bad judgement or a deliberate affront to the majority of British Jews.” Israeli news headlines read “Corbyn meets with group calling for Israel's destruction”, heavily portraying any kind of anti-israel views as anti-Jewish ones.
“People like to say that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-semitic, because he's anti-Zionist. But that's the thing, you can be anti-Israel without being anti-semitic by default. There are people living in Israel that are anti-Zionist, who agree that what's going on in Palestine is fucked”, Sharkovskii clarifies.
“And that’s my issue with Jewdas being linked to radicalism. Jewdas get stigmatised and attacked as being radical, and it's almost like a bad and scary word; but everything Jewdas does is surely good. It accepts people of any race, any gender, any religion, any sexuality, any gender; it's predominantly run by a non-binary people and women. They also set up a course called “Babels of Blessings” which is essentially a language school, but it also runs a queer bar mitzvah course. Babel of Blessings gives free English language classes to refugees and migrants and it also offers language courses in Farsi, Bengali, and a couple of other languages which are spoken quite widely in the UK, which aren't really taught, but should be to help create an awareness and understanding between people.”
"If there is no right way of being Jewish, then they’re all as right as each other, and they’re all as necessary as each other"
The internet, especially online social justice culture, has decentralised our engagement with each other. Although we have been able to find communities online, we crave the intimacy and camaraderie of IRL (in real life) socialising. Arguably, many young people in London have it particularly hard; mega cities as such make it very hard to feel like you have a close-knit circle of people you relate to, everyone is spread thin, worked and stressed to death. In Sharkovskii’s case, looking to his heritage, and combining religion with contemporary politics is his solution to feeling connected and establishing his spiritual base.
“I have become more interested in my Jewish heritage recently through Jewdas. I became aware of Jewdas and they taught me to really embrace my Jewish heritage. One thing that Jewdas has taught me is that Judaism has so many more possibilities than I was aware of, and that there isn’t one way of being Jewish. If there is no right way of being Jewish, then they’re all as right as each other, and they’re all as necessary as each other. It’s important to be whatever you are. It’s important to be trans, it’s important to be queer, it’s important to be lesbian. I think that’s why the group has such a strong rooting in the sexual and gender discourses because it’s all about the same thing. It’s all about saying there is no central idea of anything — and there shouldn’t be.”
Sharkovskii’s journey to spirituality is one of challenging authority and rejecting preexistent boundaries, because once you get past the rules of a default frame of expectation, the only thing that matters is how much you allow yourself to contribute to your own identity.