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'Project Mah Jongg' at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

My knowledge of the Jews in China came through the novels of Pearl Buck, particularly through her novel, "Peony." "Peony" is set in the 1850s in the city of K'aifeng, in the province of Hunan, which was historically a center for Chinese Jews. The novel follows Peony, a Chinese bondmaid of the prominent Jewish family of Ezra ben Israel, and shows through her eyes how the Jewish community was regarded in K'aifeng at a time when Jews had started to become assimilated into the Chinese community. The story shows the mutual tolerance between Jews and Chinese, an interracial love story and yes - lots of upper class Chinese women playing Mah Jongg.

Score card for mah jongg, c. 1923

It had many of the elements present in the current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, "Project Mah Jongg," an exhibition created by the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Through a careful selection of items, the show explores the traditions, history, and meaning of the game in Jewish American culture.

While popular among the Chinese for centuries, the show tells the Jewish side of the story. Jews and Mah Jongg? Who knew?

Joseph Park Babcock, a civil engineer worked for Standard Oil in China and while there, learned the game. In the 1920's he returned to the United States and imported the game here. Babcock trademarked the name "Mah-Jongg" and published his book "Rules of Mah-Jongg," also known as the "red book." This was the earliest version of mahjong known in America. His rules simplified the game to make it easier for Americans to take up, and his version was common through the Mah Jongg fad of the 1920s. Later, when the 1920s fad died out, many of Babcock's simplifications were abandoned.

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."

"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."

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 but also as a way of making friends.

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.

The exhibit conveys a powerful sense of social history. CJM curatorial associate Jeanne Gerrity, who worked on the exhibit explains, “We don’t really know exactly how Mah Jongg came to the U.S., but the assumption is that it came through San Francisco."

CJM executive director Lori Starr recalls Mag Jongg from her childhood, though she never learned the game growing up. “It’s the game my mother and my grandmother and my aunts and their whole circle of friends played” in her Jersey City, N.J., hometown, she says. Starr sees the Mah Jongg craze as one of the few ways open for Eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrants to enter American mainstream culture, giving women a opportunity to socialize and learn American manners and mores.

The story of Mah Jongg, says Gerrity, is also the story of Jewish women’s philanthropy. The National Mah Jongg League, founded in New York in 1937 by a group of Jewish women, played to benefit orphans in World War II and continues to support numerous charities.

Highlights of the exhibition include images and items from the mah jongg craze of the 1920s, including vintage advertisements, Chinoiserie, and a colorful array of early game sets distributed by companies such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. Artifacts from the 1930s include an instructional booklet by Dorothy S. Meyerson, a pioneer of Mah Jongg within the Jewish community, and images of early members of the National Mah Jongg League. When many Jewish families moved into the suburbs, the game became a popular social activity. 1950s-era mah jongg lent itself to Mah Jongg-themed aprons, travel sets, and images of women in the Catskills enjoying the game. On display are a multitude of vintage tiles, boxed sets, rulebooks, and related material culture.

A game table at the core of the exhibition space encourages players and non-players alike to take part in a game of mah jongg. The CJM will have both American and Chinese sets on hand for visitors to play.

Programs associated with the show include Tuesday lunchtime board games on Jessie Square. Mah Jongg expert Sara Levy Linden will be teaching tricks and tips (check website for schedules). All levels and game styles welcome! Bring a Mah Jongg set if you can. On July 20, join the museum for a pre-game talk with Mah Jongg scholar Annelise Heinz at 1 p. m. On September 14, share and hear personal stories behind the sets, alongside the playtime.

Local artist Imin Yeh, whose work plays off objects and trends in consumer culture, has assembled interactive projects, including a paper Mah Jongg set. She’s also made containers with screen prints of Stars of David intertwined with the Chinese character for friendship; these will hold the treats created by artist and pastry chef Leah Rosenberg for a few Thursday night “Jews for Dim Sum” events,

Events free with Museum admission; limited seating; advance registration required. Please check the website for hours.

Project Mah Jongg” is on exhibit Sunday, July 13 through Oct. 28 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., S.F.

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