Jewish American ladies fuel mah jongg craze 

click to enlarge mah jongg
  • Ladies play a floating game of mah jongg in a 1924 photo on view at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.
If you grew up in a Jewish home in postwar America, chances are you remember mah jongg. Starting in the 1920s and continuing for decades, many Jewish American living rooms were filled with the lively sounds of clacking tiles as people started playing the Chinese game.

“Project Mah Jongg,” on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through October, includes vintage iterations of the game, photographs and other items associated with the phenomenon.

Created by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, the exhibtion explores the history of the game in the U.S. and its importance in Jewish American culture.

“Mah jongg has a rich history in the Jewish American community,” says Lori Starr, the Contemporary Jewish Museum’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.”

The game was imported from China around 1920 and was an instant hit among upper class women. Among other things, playing “mahj” was a way for Jewish American families to assimilate.

“A game of mah jongg was a reminder of American inclusion, carrying high-class connotations that put Jewish Americans – both wealthy and aspiring – at ease,” says Museum of Jewish Heritage curator Melissa Martens Yaverbaum.

In 1937, a group of Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League to standardize the rules of the game played in the U.S. Each year, the league sold thousands of rule cards, raising money for charities and making the game an important tool in world of philanthropy.

The show includes items from various eras of mah jongg: Advertisements, Chinoiserie, and early game sets distributed by Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers in the 1920s; an instructional booklet and photos of early members of the Mah Jongg League from the 1930s, and suburban stuff from the 1950s, including an apron, travel sets and photos of women in the Catskills playing the game.

In addition to the artifacts, the show also includes reproductions of original works by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and illustrators Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann and Bruce McCall, who pay homage to mah jongg in humorous ways.

The exhibition also includes an installation by local artist Imin Yeh, who created new a new mah jongg design that may be downloaded and printed for home use.

Along with vintage tiles, boxed sets, rulebooks and other related material is a table set up in the middle of the display, where visitors are encouraged to play.

The one thing “Project Mah Jongg” does not do is delve into explicit rules of the game or explain how to play. However, special programs in conjunction with the show include beginning and intermediate classes.

In another fun offering, “Jews for Dim Sum: Build Tiles, Eat Snacks,” artist Yeh and pastry chef Leah Rosenberg share stories as they roll out a screen-printed mah jongg snack box; the “Third Thursday” event happens at 6 p.m. today, Aug. 21, Sept. 18 and Oct 16.


Project Mah Jongg

Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and to 8 p.m. Thursdays, show closes Oct. 28

Tickets: $5 to $12

Contact: (415) 655-7800,

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Cathy Bowman

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