America’s Other Pastime

For years, the clicking of the colorful tiles taunted Donna Beth Joy Shapiro. She wanted to learn the game, but she couldn’t find anyone to teach her.

“It was the most mysterious thing my mother did,” said Shapiro of her mother’s regular mah jongg games.

Finally, Shapiro attended an instructional event hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland last month as part of its Late Night on Lloyd program.

“It just seemed like something a member of the Tribe should know how to do,” said Shapiro. As a former antique dealer, she had collected a lot of mah jongg-themed goods over the years — even a wooden set, although the sound of the wooden tiles never quite satisfied her.

“I love the sound of the clicks,” she said. “It’s about the sound.”

Whether they were introduced to the game by their aunt, mother, grandmother or someone else, for many Jews, mah jongg was a part of family life growing up.

“People speak of the ‘ancient game of mah jongg,’” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the JMM, where the mah jongg exhibit, “Project Mah Jongg,” opened March 30, “but there’s no such thing.”

Rather, said Pinkert, the origins of the modern version of the game date back to the mid-19th century, when tiles began being used in place of card strips. In the early 1920s, American businessman Joseph Babcock took a liking to the game while living overseas and began importing sets to the United States.

“It’s like the Beatles coming to New York,” described Pinkert of the way the game took the country by storm. Just as everything “mod” was in while he was growing up, “everything that was of Oriental character [became] popular” in the 1920s flapper culture.

Young people looking to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation were lured by the exotic style and games of Eastern culture. From mah jongg-themed clothing sketches by modern fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to mah jongg dolls, a lot of the museum’s exhibit, which ends June 29, explores the game’s effects on popular culture.

“It [became] such a fad that it [affected] everything around it,” said Pinkert, noting that The Saturday Evening Post even featured an illustration of a flapper playing mah jongg on its Jan. 5, 1924 cover.

By the end of the ’20s, the craze had largely died out. But when the Great Depression hit and Jewish charities were looking for creative ways to raise money, the game made a comeback as a fun way to “go retro,” said Pinkert.

In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was formed. The initial meeting was attended by some 200 ladies, said Pinkert, most of whom were Jewish.

“Now it becomes Jewish culture,” he said.

The National Mah Jongg League established a standard set of rules for American players to follow. Unlike Chinese mah jongg, the mah jongg played by American women of the 1930s involved score calculator cards and multiple winning hands.

By the 1940s, women had begun to rely on mah jongg as a part of regular life.

“In the ’40s, with men away at war, mah jongg became part of the way women kept their social sphere alive,” said Pinkert.

The game quickly became an integral part of “the good life” for American Jewish women, he detailed. Vacations to the Catskills and Miami began to include hours spent playing with the tiles.

“Project Mah Jongg” originated in New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and illustrates not only the game’s history, but also its role in the community.

“What began as a Chinese game is now part of the Jewish American narrative,” said Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, director of collections and exhibitions at the New York museum and curator of the traveling exhibit.

Designed by Pentagram Design, it takes the viewer through a chronological journey through the life of the game, from China to America. Complete with audio stations, where viewers can listen to interviews with mah jongg players and the clicking of mah jongg tiles, “Project Mah Jongg” allows the viewer to step into a larger-than-life game. The centerpiece of the design is a table set for people to play on, surrounded by large tile-shaped frames filled with memorabilia and game pieces. Along the outside of the display are cultural items related to the game, such as fashion designs and vacation photos. At the apex of the display, tying everything together, is a large Star of David.

For Pinkert, the exhibit brings him back to his childhood.

“I grew up in the next room listening to the clatter of mah jongg tiles,” he said of his mother’s regular game nights.

Lois Madow is president and CEO of the Baltimore-based American Mah-Jongg Association. In addition to providing access to lessons and tournaments, the organization also hosts one or two two-week tournaments at sea each year.

“The game is very popular in Baltimore,” Madow said in an email sent during her latest mah jongg cruise, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Barcelona. “Just go to almost any restaurant in Pikesville and you will see people playing. Of course, a lot of people play in their home [as well].”

With 3,000 people on the group’s mailing list, the American Mah-Jongg Association is easily one of the biggest names in Western mah jongg. In addition to event sign-ups and sets for purchase, the group’s website also features mah jongg-themed bags, jewelry, license plates, clothing and other items for sale.

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