Hot Off the Shtender: Becoming Forever Upside-Down

by R’ Hayley Goldstein, SVARA Fellow

I never thought I’d spend Purim day on the phone with Wildlife Rescue trying to save a small, injured bird. On a walk with a friend to a nearby gorge where I live in Ithaca, NY, we silently admired the trees, with their roots somehow afloat, twisted and elegant above the water’s edge, and the icicles latching onto the gorge walls next to the bright green lichen. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another natural phenomenon. A beautiful black and white bird, injured and struggling to get up from the snow. As we walked over, admiring its beauty and feeling its pain, my mind couldn’t help notice the symbolism of a beautiful bird flailing and struggling on a day that is supposed to be a day of joy, expanse, and freedom and instead marks one year since the pandemic hit the Jewish world, restricting our movement and freedom in ways we then did not know were possible. 

While normally I might have said a few words and walked away, understanding the natural cycles of life and death in the wild, something about this bird and their unrelenting fight to get up from the snow hooked me. I tried walking away, taking a few steps on the slick melting snow, and I was pulled right back. I called Wildlife Rescue and, to my surprise, they came to the site within minutes, gently placing the bird into a little box and transporting it to the wildlife rehabilitation section of the animal hospital. On our walk back up the trail, carefully holding precious life encased in a cardboard box, the vet told me that our bird was called a Nuthatch. “They’re the ones known for eating upside down,” she said. On Purim, the day where we read in Megillat Esther that everything is turned on its head, v’nafoch hu, we were helping rescue a bird that, upon more research I discovered is called “the upside down bird,” as it is the only species of bird that can walk completely head-first down a tree. 

The role of a SVARA Bet Midrash Fairy isn’t so different than that of a Nuthatch. We use our glittery wings to flutter in and out of a hevruta pair’s physical or zoom space. Once in the space, we gently guide them in the right direction. Much like the Nuthatch who evolved to walk upside down in order to gain a different perspective and find hidden seeds for nourishment, our job as fairies is to help turn the hevruta pair’s gaze towards a new and often unexpected direction in order to glean new insights. And, in some ways, our role as fairies in the lives of students is similar to the role of Purim in our souls; to help us see things in a new way, opening us to greater opportunities to be face to face with the world and the text.

Our Rabbis teach us that Purim is one of the only holidays that will exist in Messianic times. Whether we are holding out hope for Moshiach or simply witnessing the collapsing of society, there is something beautiful and very option three about the queerest of holidays surviving what the Rabbis envisioned to be the biggest and most powerful future crash, the end of days. Us SVARA-niks are masters of this kind of queering, this kind of going upside down that is required to be truly crash-flex. Perhaps when the Rabbis say that Purim will exist forever, quoting the end of Megilat Esther, “the memory of Purim will never cease from among their descendants,” (9:28) what they mean is that this queering, this upside-downness, this turning of one anothers perspective to see what has been previously hidden, this is what will be forever. And maybe it will not simply exist but will be vital to getting us there, to helping us create Olam Haba, the world that is coming, the world we so desperately long for. 

A couple days later, I got a text that our beautiful Nuthatch passed away in the night. He was warm, with a belly full of food, and experienced no pain. My heart broke for this little bird, a microcosm of the grief and death that’s been the wallpaper of this entire year. In their honor, may we spend more time upside down in body and in mind. May we spend more time offering our gifts of queerness and crash-flex resilience to the world, living into our magic daily. 

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