By Marvin Pinkert
Executive Director, Jewish Museum of Maryland
Just a few days ago, the Jewish Museum of Maryland opened the Baltimore tour of Project Mah Jongg, an exhibit conceived and produced by Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, director of exhibitions at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York (and former curator at the JMM). Throughout the last month, the team has busily been preparing. Jobi managed the installation in the Feldman Gallery. Ilene developed activities for kids, Trillion worked on program concepts and Rachel let people know the exhibit is here.
As for me, I’ve been doing a little research about the history of Jews and board games. This is a convenient convergence of the needs of the project and personal interests. I have been in the museum business 25 years, but I’ve been playing board games – nearly continuously – for at least 55 years. I have somewhere around 150 board games in the basement, not enough to make me a collector, but more than enough to have my wife wince every time she sees a new box come through the door. To prepare for the exhibit, I have also learned Mah Jongg (it’s tough work, but someone has to do it).
Since we signed up for the exhibit, I have been intriguing audiences with the question ‘how did a game for Chinese men become a pastime for Jewish women?’ The empirical answer to this question involves Jewish flappers of the 1920s and Jewish charitable fundraising in the 1930s. But this statement of facts sidesteps a more interesting question about Mah Jongg as an example of cultural adaptation. Bingo was patented and promoted by Jewish toy salesman, Edwin Lowe, but it was Mah Jongg, not Bingo, that was so overwhelmingly adopted for Jewish charities.
Mah Jongg is just one example of many things that both Jews and non-Jews would point to as culturally Jewish that have no theological basis, no obvious connection to Torah or Talmud – e.g. bagels on Sunday morning, Borscht Belt shtick, discount camera supplies.
The exhibit contains a wonderful illustration by Bruce McCall that juxtaposes ancient Confucian masters advising a very contemporary quartet of Mah Jongg players in an apartment overlooking Miami Beach. A second illustrator, Christoph Niemann creates a unique set of Mah Jongg tiles where “three dot” becomes “three bagels,” and sections of “crack” and “dot” come together to make a Star of David. These hybrids build on an underlying reality of cultural fusion.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Abba Eban-narrated PBS series, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. The point of the series was that Judaism had not merely survived 4,000 years of contact with other cultural communities, it had actually helped shape (and in turn was shaped by) those contacts. With the passage of enough time, we often lose our awareness of cultural adaptations and assume that our customs are native to our history. We may be aware that potatoes are of South American origin and did not reach Europe until the 16th century, but still somehow imagine that potato latkes are an ancient recipe.
Of course at this time of year my senses are more likely to be excited by the anticipation of matzah kugel than latkes. Passover too contains great examples of the history of cultural adaptation – running the gamut from ancient rites of spring to the Roman custom of free men reclining to the contemporary examples of suffering and depredation often invoked during the recounting of our bondage in Egypt. I have often looked at the seder as an archeological dig, not only through Jewish history, but through all the cultures we have touched.
So perhaps it is not as unusual as it seems to include Mah Jongg among our adapted treasures.