The First Female Marathoner - Off-Ramp for June 9, 2012

Project Mah Jongg at Skirball Center uses tile game to draw cultural, social connections

Project Mah Jongg

James Kim/KPCC

Why is a Chinese pasttime that made its way to the United States in the 1920s so popular with Jewish Americans? The Skirball Center has a new exhibit that looks at the Mah Jongg tradition among Jewish Americans.

Head to the Skirball Cultural Center anytime between now and September 2, and tucked in the museum's South wing you'll find an exhibit on Mah Jongg — a Chinese tile game. At the Skirball, you can learn about the history of the game, see fashion inspired by its tiles and even play a round or two yourself. But what is an exhibit on a Chinese game doing in a place that normally focuses on Jewish cultural heritage? Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson went to find out.

According to Skirball curator Erin Clancey, Mah Jongg, most likely an adaptation of Chinese card games or dominoes, swept America with its popularity after a man named Joseph Park Babcock brought it to the states.

"Babcock, sort of an entrepreneur, felt that the game had great potential in America with American audiences, so he imported sets starting in 1922," she explained. "He literally wrote the book 'Babcock's rules for Mah-Jongg,' which was the first introduction Westerners had for how to play Mah Jongg."

The game finds itself at the Skirball because of its cultural associations with the Jewish American community.

"It came to the United States, became a fad among all people, really, and then became really associated with Jewish women in the 1930s, and maintained popularity among Jewish women's groups until today," Clancey said.

She added that there are a number of theories why that is.

"A game of Mahjongg is an expression of camaraderie, of communal spirit, and I think that's important in the Jewish tradition," she said.

She also said that the Chinese American immigrant community and Jewish American immigrant community shared parallels in cultural experience that may have led to the Jewish community to pick up the game.

"I think there's a certain affinity perhaps the Jewish community might have had for Chinese products. The Chinese American immigrants and the Jewish American immigrants are the two most identifiable and largest non-Christian immigrant communities in the West, so there was a certain understanding, I think. Geographically, they were literally neighbors in the lower-eastside of New York; the Chinatown and the Jewish Quarter were literally next to one another," she said.

Four friends sat at a square table, shuffling the tiles. Jan Esquith, reminisced about her younger years.

"Many of us remember our mothers playing. When I was growing up, my mom used to play with a whole group of women, and every few weeks, the women would play at our house. So I grew up with my mom playing 'Mahj,'" she said.

For Sharon Lerner, another sitting player, the game brings people together. "It's a thinking game, and it's a nice way to get together with your friends and socialize," Lerner said.
Clancey said she wants the exhibit to promote community building.

"I hope that people will come to the Skirball with their community of friends and see the common bonds between cultures, between people, and that maybe they'll even make new friends over a game of Mah Jongg," she said.


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