Monday, February 14, 2011

Mah Jongg And Comedy Share The Stage At The Museum Of Jewish Heritage

Since last March, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown New York City has been featuring an exhibit on the history of Mah Jongg as it has been played by generations of Jewish women since it became a craze in the 1920s and 1930s.  The exhibit has been so popular that the museum has extended it through February 27.

Writing in The New York Times last year, Steven Heller reported:
The craze, which began in the 1920s, was a novel form of entertainment for a new leisure class and paralleled a middle-class taste for Asian-style interior decoration as well as a “Jewish interest in Chinese food,” says Melissa Martens, the curator of “Project Mah Jongg,” an extensive exhibit opening at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 4 and continuing through December.(NOTE: Now extended through February 27, 2011).
It promises to be a distinctive cultural examination of the game and an opportunity to intimately engage with the ritualistic aspects of mah-jongg, which is enjoying a resurgence through mah-jongg social groups and on the Web (like online mah-jongg solitaire).
Mah-jongg is a game of chance and skill similar to gin rummy, in which each of four players is dealt either 13 or 16 pictographic tiles of different suits. The players then take turns drawing and discarding tiles, with a goal of making four or five combinations of tiles, or melds, and one pair, or head. It was a favorite among Catskill resort habitués and played incessantly by Eastern European immigrant Jewish women in the 1930s.
Last Sunday the museum hosted a six-hour Mah Jongg marathon to benefit its work and an afternoon of comedy related to the Mah Jongg phenomenon.  Here are two videos, the first showing the marathon in progress with interviews with some of its participants, and the second a selection from the comedy session.  

The comedians are Esther Goodhart (The Oriental Yenta) and Dina Pearlman, who tell funny stories about how their parents and grandparents played Mah Jongg in the Catskills and on a mostly Jewish block in a non-Jewish development in Hazlet, New Jersey.  Enjoy!

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