Review: Project Mah Jongg at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

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Catskills1950Collection of Harvey Abrams
Women play a game of Mah Jongg, Catskills, NY, 1950. Collection of Harvey Abrams, from the exhibit Project Mah Jongg, Courtesy of The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.

“Two-Crak, Flower, Nine-Dot, Red. Take.”

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

The words may sound odd, but if you grew up in a Jewish household or in a household where Mah Jongg was played (often they are one and the same), there’s a good chance you heard utterances like these with some regularity. Project Mah Jongg, a new exhibition at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, delves into the long-standing, surprising, but often unexamined connection between Jewish-American culture and the Chinese tile game [June 23-September 15, 2013].

Mah Jongg’s origins lie about as far from Jewish culture as you can get. The game evolved in China—some trace it back as far as 500 BC—as a gambling game for four players (there are variations for more or fewer players). Players use a set of 144 tiles divided up into suits and attempt to assemble a winning hand by drawing and discarding tiles, similar to Western card games like gin rummy or bridge. The name “Mah Jongg” loosely translates to ‘clattering sparrows,’ probably referring to the sound the tiles make as they’re shuffled around the table.

Originally, the game was solely for the Chinese elite, but with the democratization and modernization of China in the late 19th and early 20th century, its popularity took off among the general population. Interestingly, the game was banned by the communist government in China for being a form of capitalist corruption in 1949. Proscriptions were only lifted again in 1985, when it returned as a popular, non-gambling pastime.

Joseph Park Babcock, an American civil engineer working with the Standard Oil Company in Soochow, China, was among the first to bring the game back to the states in the early 20th century. His book Rules of Mah Jongg (1920), taught a somewhat simplified version of the complex game and helped to introduce Americans to Mah Jongg. Babcock’s book became the standard guidebook for play, often simply referred to as “the red book.” Curiously, the first sets of Mah Jongg were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch, which was then an exclusive Manhattan-based excursion outfitter and sporting goods shop (it only shares a name with the purveyor of tight t-shirts that we know today). Mainstream gaming companies like Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers soon followed suit, as the game gained traction and style during the faddish and leisurely 1920s. Americans sought sophisticated new forms of entertainment in the prosperous post-World War I and pre-depression golden era, and Mah Jongg fit the bill.

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

As we see in the exhibition, early game sets, rule books and ephemera often emphasized the foreign nature of the game in ways that can appear as transparently reductive or exotic to contemporary eyes. Sets were accompanied by stylized drawings of demure Chinese maidens, sagacious philosophers, lotus blossoms and so on. Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor had a hit with the song “Since Ma is Playing Mah Jongg,” which describes the transformation (in politically incorrect terms) that befalls the neglected household when the mother becomes addicted to the game.

The game became popular across all demographics in the US, but its foothold and connection to Jewish-American culture runs particularly deep. Especially charming in the exhibition is the display of reproductions of work by contemporary Jewish-American artists, riffing on the game’s presence in their upbringing: Artist Maira Kalman illustrates the elements of a ‘Mah Jongg murder mystery,’ delving into the game’s slightly sinister aspects, for example that it was often played by women apart from men and seen as a chance to gossip, plan, or even conspire. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi designs four outrageously glamorous outfits for playing Mah Jongg—there’s poolside, evening, cocktail and so on—connecting it to a world of aspirational leisure and extravagance, and artist Bruce McCall depicts four elderly women in a Miami high rise being guided by four ancient Chinese philosophers as they play a game of Mah Jongg.

A 1923 Mah Jongg scorecard, courtesy the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

So why the long-standing connection between the game and Jewish-Americans? The exhibition wisely never makes a single explanation explicit, but rather allows the ephemera, photographs and artifacts to tell their own stories. Mah Jongg represents a unique combination of elements: beauty and whimsy, seriousness and play, simplicity and complexity, accessibility and a bit of ‘in-group’ exclusivity. The game depends on close-knit groups, but also provides in-roads for outreach, expansion and inclusion. Kalman’s work may evoke sinister aspects of Mah Jongg with a smirk, but the game did, in fact, provide a chance for Jewish women to meet, socialize, and organize. The game’s connection to philanthropy and women’s organizations remains strong: funds realized from sales of annual Mah Jongg cards, which slightly change the game’s objective from year to year by creating different kinds of winning hands, typically go to charitable organizations.

Mah Jongg also developed an especially strong foothold in bungalow communities in the Catskills, in Miami retirement homes, in military communities or in towns—like those in the South—where the relatively small Jewish communites remained tight and close-knit. Indeed, one of the uses of ‘exoticism’ can be that it makes its participants themselves feel less foreign, perhaps an enticement to Jewish-Americans often just one or two generations removed from European immigrants. Mah Jongg was an attractive symbol, a sign of affluence, success, and sophistication.

But perhaps most important of all—as the exhibition makes clear, especially with the addition of photographs of Southern Jewish communities playing the game—are the game’s aspects of performative community ritual, a chance for relationship-building and companionship. Fittingly, a game table at the center of the exhibition encourages visitors to stop observing and take an active role. And the museum is even offering a series of programs including lessons and tournaments for players at all levels.

Check the Breman Museum’s events calendar for more information.



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