Since the 1920s, the game of mah jongg has ignited the Jewish-American imagination in living rooms and gathering spots around the country. Introduced to American audiences by Joseph P. Babcock who began importing sets en masse around 1922, the game delighted players with its beautifully adorned tiles, associations with other lands, and mysterious rules. Companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers further popularized the game by selling affordable sets across America, setting a craze in motion.
Yet even at the height of the first fad for mah jongg, commentators debated the game's image as a "vice"—a gambling game, a time waster, and a potential vehicle for rebellious flapper behavior. Introduced to America during a peak in immigration restrictions, the game's foreign associations stirred both consumer intrigue and stereotypes in the press.
Yet mah jongg was—more than anything—a community builder. It was the perfect complement to women's gatherings and fundraisers, and it quickly became a fixture in the Jewish communal world. Mah jongg games offered relaxation, companionship, and a way to raise money for worthy causes. By 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was formed to standardize the rules of American mah jongg. Funds realized from the sale of the League's annual rule cards were earmarked for charitable organizations. With thousands of rule cards sold each year, mah jongg became a leading device in Jewish women's philanthropy. The game spread throughout organized circles in Jewish communities far and wide.
In the post-war years, the game was embraced enthusiastically throughout circles of Eastern European Jewish women and became a favorite activity of bungalow colonies of the Catskills. Mah jongg became an entertainment ritual in suburban Jewish homes—where it has been lovingly transfixed in the memories of the contemporary generation. Today, hundreds of thousands of people play mah jongg, and it continues to be a vital part of communal, personal, and cultural life.
In the exhibition, visitors will encounter an ambient soundscape, created by sound designer Timothy Nohe, echoing the clicking of the tiles, the din of the gossip, spoken memories, and exclamations of "Crack!" "Bam!" and "Dot!"
A game table at the core of the exhibition space will encourage players and non-players alike to take part in a game of mah jongg and a continuing tradition.
The exhibition, designed by Abbott Miller of Pentagram, features artwork by Christoph Niemann, Isaac Mizrahi, Maira Kalman, and Bruce McCall and was curated by Melissa Martens. Additional research support was provided by the Museum of Chinese in America.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the National Mah Jongg League. Additional support provided by Sylvia Hassenfeld and the 2wice Arts Foundation.
We were honored to have worked with Ruth Unger, who was involved with the National Mah Jongg League for 52 years serving as president from 1981 to 2015, on the original creation of this exhibition and the research and memories that informed it. We remain grateful to the National Mah Jongg League.