Guest Blogger: Melissa Martens, Museum of Jewish Heritage


Members of the Museum staff play Mah Jongg.

This blog is by Melissa Martens, Senior Curator for Exhibitions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. We invite you, our downtown neighbors, to stop by the Museum to see Project Mah Jongg and to play the game with us or to learn how to play.

When the Museum of Jewish Heritage first decided to create an exhibition on the topic of mah jongg, we realized we would need to actually learn the game that has so long been a part in Jewish-American life. How hard could it be, right?

A couple of months into the project’s development, about 20 Museum staff members started convening regularly over lunch to decipher the “game of a thousand wonders.” For us, the game posed at least a thousand wonders—the naming of the tiles (is that tile called “red” or “dragon” or “red dragon”?) , the Charleston exchange (“are we on the second left yet?”), and the reading of the score card (“how does one possibly acquire five of the same tile?”).

Despite our intimidation and frustration, we persevered. Under the tutelage of Deputy Director, Ivy Barsky, we learned to make our way through a full round of a mah jongg in under an hour (and sometimes we didn’t even play the consecutive hand). Along the way we asked a lot of questions, we called the National Mah Jongg League hotline when we were stumped, we made fun of each other, and we laughed. A lot. New sides of our personalities came out for the first time: shyness, cleverness, shrewdness, down-right competitiveness! Some of our less “lucky” players threatened to abandon the game altogether; to their credit, they stuck with it.

By the fourth month something strange began to take hold: the game that had been so elusive was now starting to occupy our minds at frequent intervals. We whispered to each other in the hallways about the timing of the next game, we dreamt of getting our own mah jongg sets of various vintages, we talked about our favorite hands at the water cooler. Some of us even painted our nails. This was getting serious.

It was at this point we knew we were ready for the next level: playing on evenings, on Sundays, in our own neighborhoods! We couldn’t get enough. Where did everybody live? How many boroughs did we need to cover? Babysitters were obtained, husbands and boyfriends placated, and favorite cafes (with square tables) identified. The Museum’s next generation of mah jongg enthusiasts was going public.

So around Brooklyn, we convene every few weeks to play. And all of the old traditions get recreated through the social alchemy of the game: the gossip, the clacking, the victories, the defeats, and the snacks (our own favorites like sparkling rose, tartines, and low-cal soft serve). Our circle keeps expanding to include friends, neighbors, colleagues and those who are just excited to learn. Maybe someday we’ll have a seaside venue for our game, as in this recent New York Times story.

Personally, I imagine I’ll be playing mah jongg for many years to come—ok, forever. When I see a staff member walk into our Project Mah Jongg exhibition gallery to spontaneously play a game with visitors, I know that we are living a tradition we once only read about as “Jewish history.”

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