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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Project Mah Jongg: Grandma's Favorite Game Now on Display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Posted By on Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 11:53 AM

click to enlarge Nice Jewish ladies of long ago play a floating game of Mah Jongg. Courtesy of the JCM.
  • Nice Jewish ladies of long ago play a floating game of Mah Jongg. Courtesy of the JCM.

While kids who grew up in California may know the Chinese board game Mah Jongg from watching community members lay out the tiles on tables at Chinatown parks, others may be more familiar with the game's deep ties to the Jewish community. For those of us who grew up in Jewish neighborhoods, particularly on the East Coast, we may have fond memories of seeing mom, grandma and their friends happily playing Mah Jongg.

In fact, the game's importance runs so deep in the Jewish community, that it has inspired San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum's latest installation: Project Mah Jongg.

"The exhibit tells the story of a game derived from Chinese culture," says CJM Executive Director Lori Starr. "Popular since the 1920s, Mah Jongg was picked up by Jewish women to engage with each other in community. The Jewish-American community was vivified at the Mah Jongg table. Multi-generations came together around this table."

Starr continues to share that recent Holocaust emigres became involved with Mah Jongg beginning in the late 1940s. "The table was a place where they could feel safe and engaged," she adds.

The exhibit is simple, sweet, and evocative of an earlier, simpler era. A small card table graces the center of the first floor exhibition room, a game of Mah Jongg all set up and ready to be played. Nearby stands a tea cup, and some of the snacks that Jewish women of days gone by might have enjoyed while they played their favorite game, like Joyva Ring Jells and JELL-O.

Archival photographs abound. There's a nearly century old photo of "leisure class ladies" of the 1920s, intensely immersed in their game. There's also a fascinating 1951 shot of long forgotten TV personality Dorothy S. Meyerson, teaching Mah Jongg on television in 1951 on the old Dumont network, which folded in 1955.

click to enlarge Vintage Mah Jongg tiles. Courtesy of the JCM.
  • Vintage Mah Jongg tiles. Courtesy of the JCM.

The most prominent portion of the exhibit is Paper Mahjong by artist Imen Yeh, Yeh's 44 colorful pieces adorn an entire wall of the exhibition room. Each piece represents a Mah Jongg tile, some adorned with Jewish images, others adorned with Chinese images.

The pieces are meant "to celebrate the shared friendship between Chinese and Jewish culture, particularly here in America. I'm exploring how games and crafts foster community, collaboration, relaxation and companionship," according to a statement by the artist.

There's so much more to see at Project Mah Jongg, now on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum until Oct. 28.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF.

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