Eleanor Wilner's On Ethnic Definitions

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"On Ethnic Definitions" is one of the shortest poems in Eleanor Wilner's anthology Reversing the Spell, but it is arguably one of the most powerful. In "Definitions," Wilner addresses issues of Jewish identity. As the title implies, she defines the Jewish people in ten lines. The nature of her definition is not immediately obvious, however. At first, readers unfamiliar with Jewish theology may believe that Wilner's definition is a bleak one that centers around death. It does at first appear that Wilner is saying that the very definition of the Jewish people is their death and burial, their destruction. However, after a brief explanation of the Jewish theology behind the poem, readers will see that Wilner's definition of the Jewish people is by no means a sad one, but rather a definition that includes hope and a future.

Wilner begins by establishing the poem's setting with the first two lines: the small Jewish ghetto in Prague during World War II. Readers must, of course, be familiar with some Holocaust history to realize what Wilner is writing about. Then Wilner describes the way that the dead were buried standing up for lack of room, calling it the "underground / train to Sheol..." (5-6). In ancient Jewish theology, Sheol represented the underworld, or the afterlife. It was a place to which everyone went, no matter how one had lived one's life. Continuing with the train imagery, Wilner writes that the Holocaust was a "rush hour of ghosts" (7). But all hope is not lost; one day, the final train will arrive and "the final / trump [will sound]" (8-9). In the same line, Wilner lets readers who are familiar with Jewish theology in on what she is writing about. When she writes that "the Saved dead will rise" she is alluding to the coming of the Messiah, for Jewish theology asserts that the dead will be resurrected at that time (9). Then, in the most important line of the poem, Wilner states when the Messiah comes the dead who were buried standing up can "at last lie down" (10).

In these few lines, Wilner has gone through the entire Jewish life cycle in the early 20th century. Jews live in small, cramped ghettos; they die at the hands of Aryan oppressors; they are buried in a way unbefitting their religious traditions; and they go to Sheol. The first five lines of the poem focus on the death and burial of the Jews of Prague.

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