Opinion | A patchwork of pandemic stories at the Jewish Museum

Maggie Hoffman
Maggie Hoffman (Courtesy of Maggie Hoffman)

By Maggie Hoffman

Since March of 2020, we’ve collectively faced unimaginable challenges and grappled with overwhelming grief. We’ve worked on the front lines and balanced child care with countless remote meetings. We’ve created new routines and mourned the absence of comforting rituals. We’ve lost loved ones along with parts of ourselves. We’ve been sick, and we’ve suffered. Beyond the threat of a global pandemic, we’ve witnessed — or engaged in — social unrest and political upheaval. It’s been a lot. It’s still a lot.

In recent months, I’ve found myself internally recounting the early experiences of the pandemic — the empty grocery store shelves, the mixed messages, the waiting. Ordinarily, I process my experiences by sharing them with people in my inner circle. I swap stories and catch up with friends near and far. And, however slowly, I find clarity and closure. True to form, the ongoing pandemic has complicated that process. I’ve had reservations when it comes to sharing stories with my closest friends and family who have had distinctly similar encounters, or worse. It feels trivial — and even harmful — to discuss my anxiety about my parents’ health with friends who’ve lost family members. Somehow, experiences that were unfathomable just two years ago now feel commonplace. While I value the social solidarity that can emerge from shared experiences, I’ve found that the pandemic’s universal reach makes it difficult to highlight, honor and process individual hardship.

That imbalance is one reason I’m proud that the Jewish Museum of Maryland has partnered with the Council of American Jewish Museums on “Collecting These Times: American Jewish Experiences of the Pandemic,” an initiative supported by the Chronicling Funder Collaborative. A community-centered oral history project developed in June of 2020, “Collecting These Times” documents how individuals and communities have responded to the events of the past 18 months. Right now, we’re one of 18 Jewish communities throughout the United States using TheirStory, an online oral history platform, to share stories and ensure that future generations have the opportunity to learn from our experiences.

JMM is privileged to have a rich oral history collection that we turn to for exhibits, programs and research. That collection wouldn’t exist without a handful of oral historians who, over the past several decades, have reached out to community members to tell their stories. As a field, oral history has been organized and professionalized with its own best practices and standards. Its practitioners develop their craft over years and have created educational tools so that recording oral histories can be done by anyone with the drive to learn. Thanks to this work, “Collecting These Times” has been developed to effectively capture the breadth and depth of the Jewish experience of this turbulent time. We’re inviting community members like you to hone their listening skills and record stories from friends, family members and neighbors.

If you’re in the same boat as I am, and worry that it isn’t appropriate to highlight your story, we invite you to use oral history as an outlet, either as an interviewer or interviewee. Though this project involves sharing your story with friends or neighbors, it ensures that your experience will also be preserved for future generations. At JMM, we value the stories of Jewish Marylanders from all walks of life. From domestic life to politics, from union work to the arts, we believe in the importance of all stories. Collectively, these experiences comprise the rich, layered history of Jewish life in Maryland. But to tell these stories, we must first gather and preserve them. That’s where you and I come in.

As JMM’s archivist, my aim is always to gather, preserve and share stories that matter. That includes your story. While your experience of the past 18 months may seem similar to your neighbor’s story, it is intrinsically unique. Whether you have worked the front lines delivering food or tending to patients, learned the ropes of at-home schooling or developed a knack for knitting, your experience matters to JMM. We would love to hear, preserve and share your story with future generations of Jewish Marylanders who might learn from it.

If you would like to be involved in “Collecting These Times,” either as an interviewer or an interviewee, we’d love to hear from you. Inquiries can be sent to mahoffman@jewishmuseummd.org.

Maggie Hoffman serves as the archivist at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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