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Mah Jongg and its Jewish History

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Women playing mah jongg in the Catskills, c. 1960. Collection of Harvey Abrams. Project Mah Jongg. On view July 13–October 28, 2014. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

As someone who is neither from a Jewish or Chinese background, my visit to Project Mah Jongg at the Contemporary Jewish Museum was an introduction to a history that I never knew existed!  Project Mah Jongg  traces the games long history within the Jewish-American community.

Around 1920, the Chinese game mah jongg made its first appearance in the United States – most likely via San Francisco – and by 1922 it was hugely popular among upper class women.  At the time, Americans believed mah jongg to be the game of Chinese royalty.  The game represented the elegance and sophistication of an exotic land to those in the States.

Many mah jongg sets were designed for easy travel, 1970s. Photograph by James Shanks Photography, courtesy the Family of Charlotte Leavitt Spilka. Project Mah Jongg. On view July 13–October 28, 2014. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Many mah jongg sets were designed for easy travel, 1970s. Photograph by James Shanks Photography, courtesy the Family of Charlotte Leavitt Spilka. Project Mah Jongg. On view July 13–October 28, 2014. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Amongst Jewish-American women, Mah Jongg soared in popularity during the years before and after World War II.  Sitting around the mah jongg table became the place where the community gathered and the Jewish-American identity was verified.  It was where multi-generations – mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters – were engaged.  Furthermore, the may jongg table was the birthplace of Jewish-American philanthropy (and the sense of empowerment that came with it!).

Community is the central theme throughout this exhibit.  Keeping with that theme, the CJM will be hosting a variety of events to engage visitors through mah jongg.  The exhibit is centered around a may jongg table, where anyone can make an appointment and play a game (reserve here).  Other events include lunchtime board games on Jessie Square, Jews for Dim Sum evening festivities on the third thursday of the month, and talks at the museum.

Project Mah Jongg is on exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through October 28, 2014.

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One Response to “Mah Jongg and its Jewish History”
  1. 做生意是一个连续的过程,只有起点,没有终点。

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