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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


October 5, 2012  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Mah jongg exhibit coming to Jewish Museum of Florida

This 1924 photo of a floating mah jongg game is part of the “Project Mah Jongg” exhibit This 1924 photo of a floating mah jongg game is part of the “Project Mah Jongg” exhibit Enter a room where mah jongg is being played and the first thing you’ll hear are sounds of happiness – laughter and chatter, tiles clacking, and “mah jongg!” cried out by a triumphant winner. People play anywhere four can fit around a table – sometimes even in a swimming pool.

Find a Jewish community anywhere in America and chances are good you will find a Sisterhood, Hadassah, JCC or just a group of friends playing “mahj” as it is affectionately known.

And coming soon to the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach: a traveling exhibit, “Project Mah Jongg,” running from Oct. 16 through March 17, 2013.

Originated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the exhibit is completing its stop at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles before moving to Miami and then to Atlanta in April.

A group of women playing mah jongg at Gold- Dan’s Cottages in the Catskills, in 1960. 
Photo courtesy of Harvey Abrams A group of women playing mah jongg at Gold- Dan’s Cottages in the Catskills, in 1960. Photo courtesy of Harvey Abrams Throughout its history in the U.S., mah jongg has played a role in everything from family gatherings to charitable events, from immigrant neighborhoods to resorts and retirement villages, and it has enjoyed popularity from Hollywood, CA, to Hollywood, FL. Mah jongg was – more than anything – a community builder. The game was a staple that followed many from their summers in the Catskills to their winter homes in Florida.

Today, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the game. Some play to gather with friends, some have inherited the mah jongg sets of their mothers and grandmothers and they seek to connect to past generations, while others are drawn to the retro appeal of the game and a by-gone way of life in our high tech society. The clacking mah jongg tiles echo the memories, fantasies, identities and intersections of our cultures – past and present.

Project Mah Jongg sheds light on the little-known historical dimensions of the game, provoking memories and meanings of the intergenerational tradition of this still popular icon in Jewish- American culture. The exhibit includes early game sets made of bone, Bakelite and bamboo; vintage photographs and advertisements; household items; Chinoiserie; and instructional materials.

The exhibit also illuminates mah jongg’s influence on contemporary design, art, literature, theater, fashion, and cuisine, with works by designer Isaac Mizrahi, writer/ artist Bruce McCall and illustrators Christoph Niemann and Maira Kalman.

The museum has added a Florida connection to the show, with mah jongg sets and memorabilia from Jewish families throughout the state including a 2007 Tampa Tribune article about a group of six women in Tampa who had been playing a weekly game for some 40 years (See story, front page)

While touring the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to take part in an ongoing mah jongg game amidst the memorabilia. Several tournaments and other special events are also planned in conjunction with the exhibit (See story, Page 10)

How did the ancient Chinese table game mah jongg, the invention of which is attributed to Confucius in 500 BCE, become a favorite pastime – often, a social lifeline – for generations of Jewish women in America?

Mah jongg was introduced in the United States around 1920 by the American businessman Joseph P. Babcock, a representative for the Standard Oil Company in China, who was fascinated with the exotic world that mah jongg represented. He started importing sets around 1922, at which time he simplified the game for an American audience through his book Rules for Playing the Genuine Chinese Game Mah- Jongg.

One display, titled “Mah Jongg Hostess,” features a mah jonggthemed skirt, gelatin mold and a box of Joya chocolate-covered jelly rings. “In many households, mah jongg was a ritual created by and for women,” the text points out.

Indeed, the exhibit explains that Jewish women were pioneers in standardizing the game and writing rulebooks. The National Mah Jongg League, founded in 1937 by a group of German Jewish women, publishes the annual game card that dictates the specific sequence of tiles needed to win the game.

Another display attempts to answer whether Chinese food was the Jewish link to mah jongg, or possibly the other way around. The exhibit explains that Jewish Americans of the 1920s enthusiastically adopted immigrant products, including Chinese food. “Crossethnic sampling created a sense of adventure, and demonstrated a sophistication that transcended old-world parochialism,” the exhibit text states.

One example, a large photo from 1924 entitled, “Leisure class ladies playing a floating game of mah jongg,” which depicts a group of bathing-suited Jewish women playing the game in a swimming pool.

“The game is a perfect runway to memories,” says the traveling show’s curator, Melissa Martens, director of Collections & Exhibitions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “So many people have mah jongg sets buried in their attics or closets.”

As illustrator Maira Kalman said about the game, “When I heard that women would get together and play mah jongg and talk about their problems, I realized there was a lot of therapy going on that could not be done in an official way. Many worries and wishes were voiced.”


The Jewish Museum of Florida is housed in two adjacent restored historic buildings on South Beach that were once synagogues for Miami Beach’s first Jewish congregation. The museum’s focal point is its core exhibit, “MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida - 1763 to the Present,” and temporary history and art exhibits that change periodically.

Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the museum is at 301 Washington Ave., South Miami Beach. It is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Mondays, civil and Jewish holidays. Admission: adults/$6; seniors/$5; families/$12; members and children under 6/always free; Saturdays/free. For more information call (305) 672-5044 or visit

A story by Edmon J. Rodman, of the JTA news service, was used in compiling this report.

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