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  • Everyday Disruptions and Jewish Dilemmas:Preliminary Insights from the Pandemic Journaling Project
  • Sarah S. Willen (bio), Sebastian Wogenstein (bio), and Katherine A. Mason (bio)

I went to visit my grandma for my birthday but had to keep socially distanced, which was heartbreaking. . . . I don't know what's inside my own body. Can I kill someone if I hug them?

This is how a newly minted college graduate, and Jewish granddaughter, from the US Midwest concluded her first entry for the Pandemic Journaling Project (PJP), a journaling platform and research study created in late spring 2020. 1 In the same entry, dated June 3, 2020, this granddaughter continued:

It's hard to feel so alone in the present and in the future. No idea what the future looks like. Feels like stolen time. Stolen future, stolen present, stolen life. I'm still living, yes, but it's different. I guess life is always uncertain, but usually you can at least plan. I can't plan. I don't know what tomorrow or today brings.

Such fears and disappointments are especially common themes in the entries contributed to the PJP so far: Hollowed-out celebrations. A sense of betrayal by the present—and anxiety about the future. Even, [End Page 192] on occasion, terror that one's body may hold the awful capacity to harm, or even kill, those one loves the most.

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Figure 1.

Photo by a woman in her forties with the brief accompanying text: "Home with the kids. The outputs: a unicorn, a dog with a bowl, and a self-portrait." Source: PJP.

For many journalers, the PJP has become a meaningful space for weekly reflection on a wide range of topics, including touch (". . . my mom said that she missed hugs"), volatility (". . . I think the best way to describe my week is with that expression, Coronacoaster. Totally up and down"), disappointment ("We were planning an eightieth [End Page 193] birthday party for her . . . but I'm not sure that will happen"), grief ("we can't give hugs or touches . . . there is no memorial service or funeral. It is just making things so much harder"), systemic racism ("Can you imagine if #BLM erupted with the death of George Floyd in January instead of May?"), risk-taking ("I broke all the rules—hugs, snuggles with a baby who is passed from person to person and slobbers over everyone . . ."), and gratitude ("grateful that I can pay my bills, have a roof over my head, and so far have figured out how to get food . . .")—in short, on nearly every facet of everyday reality.

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Figure 2.

Screenshot of the Pandemic Journaling Project homepage. Source: PJP.

For researchers in the humanities and social sciences, the PJP aims to provide a robust window onto individuals' lived experiences of the pandemic—in effect, a pre-designed archive—of value both now and in the future. Each week,journalers receive a link with an invitation to respond to one recurring narrative prompt ("How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your life in the past week?") and their choice of two narrower questions on a range of topics—for example, the impact of the pandemic on embodied experience, close relationships and family, work and finances, movement and travel, religious observance, or expectations for the future. Weekly prompts are crafted with an ethnographic sensibility in mind. We want to elicit frank, conversational reflection on issues at stake in journalers' lives. Participants can download their journals via the platform's secure website and, if they wish, give permission to share their entries on its Featured Entries page. 2 Anyone with a smartphone can join, anywhere around the world—no computer is needed.

In this essay, we share preliminary insights from the PJP, which attracted over 500 journalers from more than 15 countries in its first three months. By September 2020, participants had contributed over [End Page 194] 3,000 individual journal entries in written, Photo Voice (image plus accompanying text), or audio-recorded form. Notably, 12 percent of these PJP participants identify as Jewish, due likely to dissemination efforts by the University of Connecticut's Center...