To some, mah jongg is nothing more than a free game on the Internet. For millions of dedicated players throughout the world though, the leisurely tile game is an inherited hobby. Made popular in the United States during the 1920s, the Chinese game was given English numerals and standardized rules and was quickly adopted by women's groups both as a pastime and a means of raising funds for their organizations. The National Mah Jongg League was established by a group of mah jongg enthusiasts in 1937 to standardize the game's rules.
"One of the remarkable things of that is of the 200 volunteers who showed up at the first meeting for the National Mah Jongg League, they were all Jewish women," says Melissa Martens, director of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Project Mah Jongg, a traveling exhibition from the Museum of Jewish Heritage, comes to the Maltz Museum Jan. 24 to examine the game's role in historic and contemporary Jewish-American life. The exhibit includes films, vintage game sets and original artwork from New York artists inspired by the game, including designer Issac Mizrahi. Martens talks to us about tiles, styles and other mementos.
Q. Can people actually play mah jongg during the exhibit?
A. The center of the exhibit has a table where visitors can sit and play pick-up games of mah jongg. So the visitors become the highlight of the exhibit itself, and they're on display playing mah jongg with their own traditions.
Q. How does this exhibit bring mah jongg fans together?
A. I think it gives people a chance to come together over a shared table. Visitors have different ways of playing. People of different age groups or different ethnic backgrounds, whether they're Chinese or Jewish or brand new to the game, can teach each other different styles and variations.
Q. What is your favorite part of the exhibit?
A. I love the historic artifacts that show that mah jongg has been in America almost 100 years now, which I think is the most surprising part of the game and the history.
Q. What is the mah jongg scene like today?
A. We're experiencing a resurgence of the popularity of mah jongg. New generations of mah jongg players are surfacing, ... and they're deciding to pass their time in this old-fashioned way and to pull on the memories of their own heritage.