Project Mah Jongg

October 17, 2012 - March 17, 2013

Enter a room where mah jongg is being played and the first thing you’ll hear are sounds of happiness – laughter and chatter, tiles clacking, and “mah jongg!” cried out by a triumphant winner. People play anywhere four can fit around a table—or in the case of Miami Beach, a swimming pool!

Project Mah Jongg is an innovative cultural exhibition that sheds light on the little-known historical dimensions of the game, provoking memories and meanings of the intergenerational tradition of this still popular icon in Jewish-American culture. The exhibit includes early game sets made of bone, Bakelite and bamboo; vintage photographs and advertisements; household items; Chinoiserie; and instructional materials. The exhibit also illuminates mah jongg’s influence on contemporary design, art, literature, theater, fashion, and cuisine, with works by designer Isaac Mizrahi, writer/artist Bruce McCall and illustrators Christoph Niemann and Maira Kalman. JMOF-FIU has added a Florida connection to the show, with mah jongg sets and memorabilia from Jewish families throughout the state. There is also a mah jongg table in the exhibit where visitors can sit and play, in addition to a variety of programs and events where people can learn to play and host their own mah jongg games.

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How did the ancient Chinese table game mah jongg, the invention of which is attributed to Confucius in 500 BCE, become a favorite pastime - often, a social lifeline - for generations of Jewish women in America? Mah-jongg was introduced in the United States around 1920 by the American businessman Joseph P. Babcock, a representative for the Standard Oil Company in China, who was fascinated with the exotic world that mah jongg represented. He started importing sets around 1922, at which time he simplified the game for an American audience through his book “Rules for Playing the Genuine Chinese Game Mah-Jongg.” Since then, the game has ignited the popular imagination with its beautiful tiles, mythical origins, and communal spirit.

Throughout its history in the U.S., mah jongg has played a role in everything from family gatherings to charitable events, from immigrant neighborhoods to resorts and retirement villages, and it has enjoyed popularity from Hollywood, CA to Hollywood, FL. Mah jongg was—more than anything—a community builder. The game was a staple that followed many from their summers in the Catskills to their winter homes on Miami Beach. As Maira Kalman said about the game, “When I heard that women would get together and play mah jongg and talk about their problems, I realized there was a lot of therapy going on that could not be done in an official way. Many worries and wishes were voiced.”

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Today, hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the game, as it continues to be a vital part of communal, personal, and cultural life. Some play to gather with friends, some have inherited the mah jongg sets of their mothers and grandmothers and they seek to connect to past generations, while others are drawn to the retro appeal of the game and a by-gone way of life in our high tech society. The clacking mah jongg tiles echo the memories, fantasies, identities and intersections of our cultures – past and present.

Project Mah Jongg was curated and is circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York. This exhibition was made possible through the generosity of the National Mah Jongg League. Additional support provided by Sylvia Hassenfeld and the 2wice Arts Foundation. Local funders include: Robert Arthur Segall Foundation, Funding Arts Network, Charles & Sandra Simon, Joni & Stanley Tate and Kenneth & Barbara Bloom in recognition and appreciation of the continuing support of the Robert Arthur Segall Foundation to the Museum and its mission.