An exhibition honoring the memories and meaning of the game
July 13–October 28, 2014
(San Francisco, CA, June 1, 2014) From the 1920s through the 1960s, the living rooms of many Jewish American homes resounded with lively exclamations of “crak, bam, dot!” and the distinctive clacking of tiles. This was the heyday of the Chinese game of mah jongg in the United States—a game with a rich history in the Jewish American community, especially among women.
This summer, The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) presents Project Mah Jongg, an exhibition created by the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City that explores the traditions, history, and meaning of the game in Jewish American culture.
“Mah jongg has a rich history in the Jewish American community,” says Lori Starr, The CJM’s Executive Director. “For younger Jewish Americans, it brings up recollections of mothers and grandmothers gathered around the table, engrossed for hours in this social pastime. There are lovely memories associated with the game that the exhibition elicits through vintage photographs and objects, as well as oral histories. But it’s also fascinating to note that mah jongg has experienced a revival in the last two decades. So we are particularly excited to offer visitors a chance to come together to relax, connect, and actively engage with the game today within the exhibition and through our programs.”
Mah Jongg in the United States
Mah jongg was imported to the US from China (most likely via San Francisco) around 1920. Joseph P. Babcock began importing sets en masse around 1922 and the game became an instant hit among upper class women. Although its actual origins are murky, mah jongg was widely considered a game of Chinese royalty when it was introduced to an American audience, and a love of the game demonstrated worldliness, refinement, and sophistication. Foreign-inspired trends were ubiquitous in the 1920s, and the appeal of the exotic led to mah jongg themed items that ran the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, but generally demonstrated a respect for Chinese culture.
Jewish Americans, in particular, seemed to relate to the situation of Chinese Americans through a shared experience of immigration and discrimination. While Jewish American women’s early adoption of mah jongg showed an admiration of Chinese culture, imitating the leisure class’ love of mah jongg was also a form of assimilation. As Museum of Jewish Heritage curator Melissa Martens Yaverbaum explains, “A game of mah jongg was a reminder of American inclusion, carrying highclass connotations that put Jewish Americans—both wealthy and aspiring—at ease.”
Later, companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers further popularized the game by selling affordable sets across America, setting a craze in motion.
In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was formed by twelve Jewish women to standardize the rules of American mah jongg, both cementing its place in American society and beginning its strong associations with philanthropy. Funds realized from the sale of the League’s annual rule cards were earmarked for charitable organizations. With thousands of rule cards sold each year, mah jongg became a leading device in Jewish women’s philanthropy. During the war years, the League held fundraisers for organizations such as the Jewish Refugees Fund and United China Relief, the latter perhaps acknowledging a kinship with the Chinese through the shared game of mah jongg.
In the post-war years, the game was embraced enthusiastically throughout circles of Eastern European Jewish women and became a favorite activity of bungalow colonies of the Catskills. Mah jongg became an entertainment ritual in suburban Jewish homes—where it has been lovingly transfixed in the memories of the contemporary generation. Today, hundreds of thousands of people play mah jongg, and it is, once again, becoming a vital part of communal, personal, and cultural life.
To capture the beauty, fantasy, and whimsy inherent in the game, the Museum of Jewish Heritage worked with designer Abbot Miller, a partner at Pentagram Design, whose projects have included Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy at the Metropolitan Museum and Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama at the Jewish Museum, New York, to design an exhibition that features the intriguing objects and imagery surrounding the game.
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.
In the exhibition, visitors hear an ambient soundscape, created by sound designer Timothy Nohe, echoing the clicking of the tiles, the din of the gossip, spoken memories, and more.
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.
Large-scale reproductions of original works by fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, and renowned illustrators Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann, and Bruce McCall pay homage to the influence mah jongg has had on design and contemporary artists.
The CJM is also working with local artist Imin Yeh to present a Bay Area specific take on mah jongg from the artist’s own perspective, which includes both Chinese American and Jewish American influences. Yeh is an interdisciplinary artist whose projects explore how objects are created, desired, valued, and consumed. For The CJM, she is creating an installation entitled Paper Mahjong, which centers around a printed and downloadable mah jongg design for making your own tiles at home.
A variety of mah jongg-themed gifts for everyone from the aficionado to the novice will be available for purchase in The Museum Store.
Project Mah Jongg was curated and is circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York. The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the National Mah Jongg League. Additional support is provided by Sylvia Hassenfeld and 2wice Arts Foundation. Exhibition design by Abbott Miller, Pentagram.
Supporting sponsorship has been provided by Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank and Fred M. Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
Mahj Group Tour Package
$25 per person (includes Museum admission, private tour, private play space, and the option to add a catered lunch);
Open to groups of ten or more
Lunchtime Board Games on Jessie Square
Tuesday, July 8, 15, 22, 29, Aug 12, 19, 26 | 12–1pm
Take a mid-day break and visit The Museum’s game cart outside on Jessie Square. Play mid-century classics from Twister to Operation.
Jews for Dim Sum: Build Tiles, Eat Snacks
Thursdays, Jul 17, Aug 21, Sept 18, Oct 16 | 6–7pm
Free with Museum admission
On Third Thursdays, Project Mah Jongg artist Imin Yeh and Blue Bottle pastry chef Leah Rosenberg will share stories as they roll out a limited edition screen printed mah jongg snack box. The noshes inside will be inspired by retro 1950s snacks that women across America nibbled while playing mah jongg. Surprises like coins, temporary tattoos, and more also included. A different treat and box design will be offered each month. Visitors can also join Yeh in building a paper mah jongg set. Limited edition of 50 boxes for sale per event.
Talk: Mah Jongg! How A Chinese Game Shaped Modern America
Sunday, Jul 20 | 1–2pm
Free with Museum admission
Stanford scholar Annelise Heinz will trace mah jongg’s surprising American career from its roots in China to its rapid popularity in the Jewish community, quickly reaching both San Francisco parlors and Catskills resorts. Discover how this social game of skill became part of the shaping of midcentury America.
Mah Jongg Open Play
Sunday, Jul 20 | 2:30–4:30pm
Sunday, Aug 17 | 2:30–4:30pm
Sunday, Sep 14 | 1:30–4:30pm
Free with Museum admission; limited seating; advance registration required
Sit with friends, or make new friends while playing mah jongg and learn tricks and tips from Mahj Maven Sara Levy Linden. All levels and game styles welcome! Bring a mah jongg set if you can. On July 20, join us for a pre-game talk with mah jongg scholar Annelise Heinz at 1pm. On September 14, share and hear personal stories behind mahj sets, alongside the playtime.
Class: Discover American Mah Jongg
Thursdays, Jul 31, Aug 7, Aug 14 | 6–8pm
$75 general (includes Museum admission)
Learn the basics of American Mah Jongg with Mahj Maven Sara Levy Linden. Students are required to bring a National Mah Jongg League playing card (available for purchase at The Museum Store). Classes are sold as a series and students must attend first class.
Class: Intermediate American Mah Jongg
Thursdays, Aug 21, Aug 28, Sep 4 | 6–8pm
$75 general (includes Museum admission)
Continue to learn American Mah Jongg and focus on the strategy to select winning hands and defensive play. Each class will cover a specific strategy along with ample time for play. Students will have the opportunity to enhance their skills to bring more fun to the game. Students are required to bring a National Mah Jongg League playing card (available for purchase at The Museum Store).Classes are sold as a series and students must attend first class.
This class is designed for novice players who are comfortable reading the card, who have been playing consistently for a minimum of three months, or who have completed a Discover American Mah Jongg series.
Film Screening: The Joy Luck Club
Tuesday, Sep 2 | 12–2:20pm
Free in conjunction with Free First Tuesdays
Based on the best-selling novel by Amy Tan, four women sit around a mah jongg table and share the great stories of their lives (1983, 139min).
Secrets of the Set
Sunday, Sep 14 | 1:30–4:30pm
Free with Museum admission; limited time and space available; advance registration required
Learn the tales your tiles might tell while spinning some of your own! In this “Antiques Roadshow” style event, American mah jongg scholars and enthusiasts Toby Alice Salk and Annelise Heinz will historically analyze your mahj sets and encourage you to share your stories. Participants will be video recorded for a short film. See website for more details and how to participate.
About The Contemporary Jewish Museum
With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, The Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.
Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum's exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by an Anonymous Donor; Alyse and Nathan Mason Brill; The Covenant Foundation; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Gaia Fund; Denise Garone and Stuart A. Kogod; the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Institute of Museum and Library Services; the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Nellie and Max Levchin; the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Osterweis Capital Management; Alison Gelb Pincus and Mark Pincus; the Seiger Family Foundation; Ruth and Alan Stein; Roselyne Chroman Swig; Target; and Anita and Ronald Wornick.
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CJM General Information
The Museum is open daily (except Wednesday) 11am–5pm and Thursday, 11am–8pm. Museum admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information on The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the public may visit The Museum’s website at thecjm.org or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between Third & Fourth streets), San Francisco.