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.