Mah jongg takes center stage at the CJM

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“Crack! Bam! Dot!” That’s not comic book onomatopoeia, but the calling out of suits in a typical game of mah jongg, and you’ll hear those words as the ambient sound accompanying a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“Project Mah Jongg” opens Sunday, July 13 in San Francisco. The exhibition features antique ivory tiles and contemporary plastic ones, mah jongg–themed fashions and collectibles, oral histories, and vintage photographs of players taken at Catskills bungalow colonies, in suburban homes — even in a swimming pool.

Vintage ivory tiles photo/courtesy museum of jewish heritage — a living memorial to the holocaust

But more important than nostalgia is the sense of social history the exhibit conveys, explains CJM curatorial associate Jeanne Gerrity. “We don’t really know exactly how mah jongg came to the U.S., but the assumption is that it came through San Francisco,” says Gerrity, who worked on the installation.

Joseph P. Babcock, an American expatriate in China, is said to have brought the game across the Pacific in the early 1920s. He teamed up with Parker Brothers for mass production, and it became wildly popular.

A rummy-like game played with colorful tiles and suits — character (crack), bamboo (bam) and circle (dot) — mah jongg was a leisure-time mainstay for men and women in China. “In the ’20s, exotic items from afar were very trendy,” says Gerrity. “Being able to show that you could play a Chinese game showed this wealth of sophistication.”

By the mid-1930s, mah jongg “had really taken hold in the Jewish community, especially among women,” she says.

CJM executive director Lori Starr recalls mag jongg from her childhood, though she never learned the game growing up. “It’s the game my mother and my grandmother and my aunts and their whole circle of friends played” in her Jersey City, N.J., hometown, she says. Starr sees the mah jongg craze as one of the few ways open for Eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrants to enter American mainstream culture.

Mah jongg scorecard, circa 1923 photo/courtesy museum of jewish heritage — a living memorial to the holocaust

Also, playing mah jongg gave these women a chance to socialize and enjoy “talking about how to raise children, talking about spouses, talking about cooking, books and music,” Starr says.

“Particularly around our table, my mother and her friends would talk great literature, and they’d talk opera and listen to opera while they were playing. They also talked about causes that were near and dear to their hearts. My mother was active in ORT, and I am 100 percent sure that at that table, money was being raised for ORT and other important organizations.”

The story of mah jongg, says Gerrity, is also the story of Jewish women’s philanthropy. The National Mah Jongg League, founded in New York in 1937 by a group of Jewish women, played to benefit orphans in World War II and continues to support numerous charities.

Curator Melissa Martens of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York — a Living Memorial to the Holocaust, where “Project Mah Jongg” originated, wrote that the game “was a reminder of American inclusion, carrying high-class connotations. It put Jewish Americans, both wealthy and aspiring, at ease.”

Starr says that Holocaust survivors used the game as “an escape, a way to recover, to relax, to achieve a feeling of safety.”

And a Jewish-Chinese bond echoes in the game’s history, she notes. “I love that the exhibit explores the shared history of immigration and discrimination.”

Leisure-class women play a floating game, 1924 photo/courtesy library of congress, prints and photographs division

“Project Mah Jongg” shows the game’s flourishing in the 1950s as a staple of suburbs and vacation bungalow colonies. This was the heyday of “mahj”-themed aprons and tchotchkes. Mah jongg hostesses, Gerrity says, would serve noshes of Jell-O rings, canned pineapple and a “bridge mix with chocolate-covered nuts.”

“Partly because of the feminist movement,” says Gerrity, mah jongg “was considered a little more frivolous” in the 1960s and ’70s, only to experience a revival in the early 21st century as young people became “more into retro things,” such as mah jongg and poker.

Gerrity suggests part of the game’s resurgent appeal comes from “a little backlash against the Internet taking over everyone’s lives, and a return to the tangible quality of the beautiful tiles making these clacking noises.”

“It’s a very visual and sensual game,” says Toby Salk, who has been teaching mah jongg to students of all ages for the last six years. Salk has played for 35 years, but didn’t learn the game growing up — it never occurred to her mother that she’d want to.

Salk, of Berkeley, treasures the human connections the game offers. “Mah jongg is a savior for a lot of people,” she says.

She relates the story of a woman in one of her classes who told her, through tears, that she’d have to keep her phone on that night because her husband was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease and she might get bad news at any moment. “I need to be here,” the woman told Salk. But once she got into the game, Salk recalls, “she was laughing, making friends.

Women enjoy a game in the Catskills, 1960 photo/courtesy cjm

“It was extraordinary to see her go from this person who was essentially spent, and here she was taking this two-hour window where she was very present — you have to be present when you play mah jongg — and she was having a great time.”

Instructor Sara Linden, 35, has been playing mah jongg since high school. After Linden saw the film “The Joy Luck Club,” she begged her mother to learn the game with her. Today, Linden runs “Saturdays Unplugged” programming at the JCC of San Francisco and teaches through her “Mahj Club” at the CJM and in private homes.

Linden says most of her students are middle-age women, but in her CJM classes she gets “about 50 percent my [own] demographic.” The classes also draw men, couples — both gay and straight — and “brides-to-be going through the wedding planning process, wanting to unplug.”

Participants are “meeting friends and starting this tradition, this ritual,” Linden says. “It also gives people an opportunity to meet people you might not meet in your everyday life.

“It’s not about the tiles,” she says. “It’s about unplugging around the table with friends.”

Starr intends to take up the game: “This is my summer to learn.” She’ll have plenty of opportunities, since the exhibit’s central interactive component will be a mah jongg table in the gallery. Museumgoers can sign up to play during the day or on Thursday evenings.

Associated events throughout the exhibit’s four-month run include lessons from Linden during the Thursday night series, and open play on three Sundays: July 20, Aug. 17 and Sept. 14.

Local artist Imin Yeh, whose work plays off objects and trends in consumer culture, has assembled interactive projects, including a paper mah jongg set. She’s also made containers with screen prints of Stars of David intertwined with the Chinese character for friendship; these will hold the treats created by artist and pastry chef Leah Rosenberg for a few Thursday night “Jews for Dim Sum” events; the first is on July 17.

As for “Project Mah Jongg,” Linden loves the exhibit’s “photos of the groups together … Seeing women that were my age back in the day — with young children, or sitting at the table, in their resort gear, playing a game.” She especially appreciates that “people are all sitting at the table together. When was the last time we sat down with at least three other friends?”

“Project Mah Jongg” is on exhibit Sunday, July 13 through Oct. 28 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., S.F.