Much of the history of the Jewish people is one of persecution and suffering. As American author and educator Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg once wrote,
“Most Jews throughout history lived a precarious existence, economically and otherwise. Many times in history we have been tolerated, and even embraced, by the rulers and locals of our host country. But we have also been subject to expulsions, pogroms, Inquisitions and genocide many times over — often, indeed, fueled by the trope of the greedy, crooked Jew serving as the scapegoat for other stresses and complexities in society.”
A matter of fact, the list of the persecutions suffered by Jews via state-run agencies is staggering in its length and savagery. As a result, Jews, for the most part, have historically lived in anticipation of the next act of rejection, banishment, horror, or violence.
Still, Jewish history is also infused with hope. With each displacement, exile, and holocaust, Jews find a new home, build a new life, set up a new community, and move forward in the world. As we assimilate into our new environment, we bring with us our own historically Jewish ethics of compassion, kindness, education, and celebration. This is the legacy of American Jews. It is also the focus of Eleanor Davis’ new book, The Hard Tomorrow.
The Hard Tomorrow is full of Jewish sensibilities and sensitivities. From its main protagonist, Hannah Plotnik, to America’s involvement in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, from its various references to antisemitism to its dystopian look at a Zuckerberg presidency — a world viewed through the lens of Jewish heritage is discernable at the core of this work. In the end, The Hard Tomorrow ostensibly echoes what Jews historically embrace: hope for a future in spite of violence, oppression, and hate.
Hannah Plotnik, Davis’ main character in The Hard Tomorrow, is quickly identified as a Jew. Her name itself speaks to many of the themes in the book. “Hannah” is a Hebrew name. It means something like “God has favored me with a child”.
In the Old Testament’s Book of Samuel, Hannah is one of Elkanah’s two wives. She is childless (while Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, has borne him children). Of his two wives, though, Elkanah prefers Hannah. Yet her inability to conceive and “increase her husband’s house” compromises her status and position. So she prays to God to make her fruitful and, specifically, to let her give birth to a son. As it is wont to happen in the Bible, her prayers are answered. In fact, she ultimately becomes the mother of six children, thus securing her place in the tribe. Her fears are alleviated.
In The Hard Tomorrow, one of Hannah’s desires is to conceive. It is the conflict that drives much of the story. Here, though, Davis gives us a Hannah who is liberated from the patriarchal-based power struggles and drives of the Biblical Hannah. This modern Hannah sees childbirth as a solidifying act — one that will deepen a bond with her immediate family and manifest hope in the future of a world seemingly on the brink of annihilation.(pg52) Bringing a new life into this world is a concrete act of faith and a testament to her desire to make the world a better place. In a very Jewish act, Hannah finds cause to celebrate and be hopeful while surrounded by a bleak reality.
Hannah’s last name reinforces the theme that she embodies in the book. Davis chooses the surname Plotnik, a Russian name that literally translates as “carpenter”. Hannah is a builder. She constructs. She creates. Having a child, for her, is an extension of this. There is a level of irony and thematic heft in the fact that Hannah’s husband is the one building their actual house. Or — not building it, as the case may be. He’s been putting it off, making excuses, and smoking weed instead. Johnny doesn’t share Hannah’s hope for the future. Noticeably, there is no indication in the book of his Jewishness. This may point to an emphasis on the fact that, by being Jewish, Hannah is intrinsically imbued with hope for the future. The challenges that define her history and that of her people fuel a drive to create — almost as an act of defiance, certainly as a way to offset the very real fear of annihilation. She is the builder in this story. She is driven to both create spaces and fill them with life.
Yet even as Hannah embraces her Jewishness and ultimately achieves her goal of propagating the future, Davis brings to bear events and characters that obstruct hope and fan fear, illustrating some of the challenges that haunt Jewish people.
Hannah works as a home health care worker for senior women who can no longer care for themselves. In a way, she is nursing them to die, easing their inevitable journey. And yet we learn early on in the story that her clients are antisemitic. Her willingness to do the work that others won’t and being hated in the process is at the core of the historical Jewish experience. Hannah attempts to assimilate with the culture she lives in. One of Hannah’s very first acts in The Hard Tomorrow is one of assimilation. She cuts her hair to look more like her friend in order to be part of a group by better blending in. She wants to be of value to a society that can and does openly persecute her.
Interestingly, in The Hard Tomorrow’s dystopian reimagining of the world, the President of the US is Mark Zuckerberg. We’re presented with a Jewish individual in a position of power who has a problematic relationship with his religious heritage.
One of the narrative thrusts concerns Hannah and her activist group protesting a President Zuckerberg’s American involvement in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — specifically the use of saran and other poisonous gasses in Gaza. For Jews across the world, the horrific treatment of the Palestinians by the State of Israel is a moral and ethical dilemma — on the one hand looking to Israel as a Jewish Homeland, on the other, witnessing atrocities in the name of “safety and sovereignty” that go against the grain of the sense of decency that historically characterizes Jewish principles. The idea of a Jewish nation using poison gas in a state-sponsored act of aggression against a group of people simply for their affiliation with that group sticks hard, reeks of hypocrisy, and is imbued with a collective memory of horror.
Still, no matter how much Jews work to assimilate within and contribute to the culture in which they have established a home, life will always be precarious. For Jews around the world, the last few years have been particularly worrisome. Antisemitism has always existed, so to say that there is a recent rise in antisemitism is a misunderstanding. The more accurate statement is this: there is a rise in antisemitic motivated violence. Antisemites feel empowered to step out of the shadows and act on their hatred. They are emboldened.
And yet the Jews persist. We continue to hope and believe in a better future. We understand that with each action we take to move forward, the greater the chance we can make it better. This binds us as a people, and Eleanor Davis captures this in The Hard Tomorrow.
The Hard Tomorrow is a welcome examination of what it means to be Jewish in this new decade. Eleanor Davis points to both that which is painful and that which is beautiful. And while she highlights our precariousness she ends the book beautifully, focused on a perfectly encapsulated image of hope and possibility. Yes, the next day will be a hard tomorrow, but optimism remains foundational to who we are as a people. Today and tomorrow, we survive.