Women playing mah jongg in the Catskills in 1960 (Harvey Abrams, Harvey Abrams )
"What's the difference between Jewish and Chinese mah jong?" the protagonist of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" asks her mother about the quintessential Chinese game. Her mother replies, "Entirely different kind of playing.... Jewish mah jong, they watch only for their own tile, play only with their eyes."
"Project Mah Jongg," a colorful exhibition opening Thursday (through Sept. 2) at the Skirball Cultural Center, tells the Jewish side of the story. With vintage photographs, souvenirs, playing guides and other ephemera, and of course examples of the tiles themselves, the exhibition traces how the game was enthusiastically adopted and integrated into the social life of Jewish women in the 20th century. Calling for four players using 152 tiles to make matches and sequences, this Chinese game of skill and chance came to the United States in the 1920s. It was promoted by Joseph P. Babcock, an American businessman who had worked in China and began importing mah-jongg sets, then made of cow bone (and now usually plastic). The game caught on like wildfire.
"It appealed to the leisure-class ladies who had free time and disposable income," says Melissa Martens, who curated the show for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where it opened in 2010. The game was part of the fascination for Orientalia and resulted in themed clothing, shoes, tablecloths and desserts. "Mah-jongg was seen as glamorous and exotic, and playing the game showed one's sophistication."
The game changed somewhat when it reached American shores, and so many different rules proliferated that the National Mah Jongg League was formed in 1937. At their first meeting in New York, 200 women showed up, all of them Jewish and mostly of German descent. The league standardized the rules and published them in a booklet that raised money for charity (and still does). Thus, says Erin Clancey, the Skirball's curator, mah-jongg was also "an expression of benevolence and doing charitable work."
Though fads of the '20s and '30s came and went, mah-jongg stayed, partly because of the closeness of Jewish communities. "Jewish communities stayed together for a long time, a lot of Jewish women vacationed together in places like Florida and the Catskills, and mah-jongg was a perfect way to spend the time," Martens says. Also, it "helped fuel fantasies of world travel, encounters with world culture." Many Chinese in America play the game, but among non-Chinese, Martens sees a resurgence of interest, partly because of nostalgia. Witness the set of dresses Isaac Mizrahi designed with mah-jongg themes (prints of the drawings are included in the show). "My mom played mah-jongg before she learned to play bridge," he has said. Today the National Mah Jongg League boasts 350,000 members, and some of them are young, having picked up the game from mothers and grandmothers.