From the 1920s through the 1960s, the living rooms of many Jewish American homes resounded with lively exclamations of “crak, bam, dot!” and the distinctive clacking of tiles. This was the heyday of the Chinese game of mah jongg in the United States—a game with a rich history in the Jewish American community, especially amongst women.
This summer, The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Project Mah Jongg, an exhibition that explores the traditions, history, and meaning of the game of mah jongg in Jewish American culture. It includes vintage photographs and artifacts such as scorecards, aprons, rulebooks, and tiles, with a focus on items from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s. An ambient soundscape in the exhibition includes oral histories interspersed with the sounds of the game in action. Players and non-players alike can take part in a round of mah jongg at a special game table within the gallery.
In addition, original works created for the exhibition by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and renowned illustrators Maira Kalman, Christopher Niemann, and Bruce McCall offer personal interpretations of mah jongg in contemporary art and design. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is also working with local Bay Area artist Imin Yeh to create an interactive work entitled Paper Mahjong, a printed and downloadable template for making a game set at home.