Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who played mah jongg. Yet when I moved to the suburbs of New York three years ago, it was a matter of weeks before the local synagogue ladies pulled me into their game, and I was hooked. Last year, I explored the connection between mah jongg and Judaism. I found very little documented, but I was able to pull together just about everything I could find for an article on this site. Still, I was left with many questions.
Needless to say, I was curious when the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan announced it was putting on an exhibit about mah jongg. Why was a Holocaust museum hosting the show? And how did they find enough material for an entire exhibit?
When I visited Project Mah Jongg, the staff guided me to a not surprisingly small room–the museum’s rotunda–which contains the entire exhibit. Inside the room, six large pillars covered in oversized mah jongg tiles hold display cases filled with old mah jongg sets, rule books, and related artifacts. The outer walls feature commissioned illustrations and photographs. And in the middle stands one lone mah jongg table, complete with cards and tiles–just waiting for people to sit down and play.
I asked curator Melissa Martens why would the museum–known as “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust,” feature an exhibit about mah jongg. She explained that the Museum of Jewish Heritage is unlike most other Holocaust museums, because its mission is to explore life before, during, and after the Holocaust (most others focus just on “during”). Some of the museum’s exhibits capture more of the memorial feeling. This one embodies the living tribute. Mah jongg’s popularity in America peaked in the 1920s. Even after it faded as an American pastime, Jewish women embraced the game fervently. The National Mah Jongg League, founded in 1937, raised money during World War II and later for Jewish refugees in Palestine. And to this day the League sells rule cards and donates the proceeds to Jewish and other causes.
The museum also focused the “living tribute” by adding design elements that infuse the exhibit with the voices of mah jongg players. CD players on the wall, when activated by visitors, play recordings of games and interviews. The clicks and the clacks of the tiles from the soundtracks fill the air with the familiar sounds of the game.
Yet what made this exhibit truly come alive was the lone mah jongg table in the middle of the room. Guests can just sit down and play. Starting later this month, the museum will have teachers one day a week giving lessons.
And so I sat down to a game with Martens, along with two other staff members. They told me that about 30 people at the museum learned to play the game over the course of putting the exhibit together. The three women I played with are now part of a group that meets weekly in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
It was a great game, and not just because I won. While playing, I realized these staff members had become part of the exhibit’s story. They have added themselves as another link in the history of the game, by creating new generation of players.
As the exhibit itself notes, “In many Jewish households, mah jongg was a ritual created by and for women.” Women creating new Jewish rituals has become a significant movement in the past few decades. And while mah jongg may not be a religious ritual, it’s one with deep cultural and communal roots. Those roots continue to plant themselves firmly in the story of American Judaism.
Project Mah Jongg runs from now until January 2, 2011. For more information about visiting the exhibit, visit www.projectmahjongg.com, where you can also see images from the show. For those not in the New York area, don’t worry. Just like a mah jongg set, the exhibit was designed to travel and will be appearing across the country next year.
Photo Credit: Melanie Einzig