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photo from Project Mah Jongg

Cliches and stereotypes almost always evolve out of some truth, and such is the case with the image of the mah jongg-playing Jewish housewife. An exhibit called “Project Mah Jongg” traces this connection, and it will continue to run at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York into January. The exhibit website is quite good, and has an large gallery of period photos as well as a schedule of special events at the exhibit.

The game was brought from China to America in the 1920s, and by the 1930s it was a genuine fad. It’s difficult to trace exactly why one culture adopts a game so passionately, but there’s no question that mah johngg was deeply entwined with the Jewish diaspora in America by the 1930s. The National Mah Jongg League was founded by a group of Jewish women who wanted to create a standard set of rules, and after the game’s popularity faded in the rest of America, the Jewish community kept it alive. Meredith Lewis has written an article explaining the connection, which you can find right here.

Melissa Martens, curator of “Project Mah Jongg,” narrates an excellent 5-minute video that summarizes the growth of the game and the ways in which is became enmeshed in Jewish-American culture.

Googling “mah jongg” can, unfortunately, lead to page after page of links to Mah Jongg Solitaire, which is a stacking game played with the tiles. It has little to do with actual mah jongg, which is really just a card game played with domino-like pieces. If you’d like to learn a bit more about the game, the wiki entry is as good a place to start as any.

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