Mahjong exhibit explores game’s impact

Game has become part of Jewish culture in the U.S.



ATLANTA — Clack. Clack. Clack.

These are the sounds of small engraved tiles being moved on a table by mahjong players.

Michele Frizzell, a third-generation mahjong player, can almost hear the sounds in her sleep.

Her mother played the game. So did her maternal grandfather, who was born in the Philippines and came to the United States in 1925. An older son leads a group that plays a Japanese version in Colorado.

“It may go back even further,” said Frizzell, an entrepreneur and CEO of Mahjong Central, a company that teaches people how to play the game.

“I’m trying to keep the love of the game going through the generations.”

Mahjong, which originated in China, became hugely popular in the Jewish community, particularly among women, in the United States. Its popularity is the focus of an exhibit, “Project Mah Jongg,” at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum that runs through Sept. 15.

The traveling exhibit includes an array of mahjong sets in wooden and faux alligator cases, a Mah Jongg Kid doll, mahjong-inspired fashions and all the trappings of a typical mahjong gathering, including recipes. There are also photographs dating back to the 1940s and 1950s of women playing in living rooms and social clubs across the country.

“For the last 80 years, mahjong has been an important part of Jewish life in America,” said Timothy Frilingos, exhibitions manager and curator at Breman. “The exhibit allows generations to explore the history of mahjong and share memories with each other.”

He recalled a story of one of the gallery guides, who, when she was pregnant with her second child, was asked by her mother-in-law whether she would rather have a new maternity dress or a new mahjong set.

She chose the mahjong set.

Mahjong, which some say dates back more than a century, was first introduced to the U.S. market in the 1920s. In 1937, a group of Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League, which some say further cemented its place in Jewish life. The rules that they established are widely known as American style.

The game had a bit part in the 1989 hit film “Driving Miss Daisy.” In one scene, Daisy and friends play the game while chattering away.

Frizzell said the game is gaining popularity in Europe, and the American style has always had a steady following in the Jewish community. Various Asian styles are also gaining interest in the U.S. among diverse communities.

Mahjong, known as “the game of 1,000 intelligences,” is similar to rummy but is played with tiles instead of cards, Frizzell said. It’s a four-player game of skill, strategy and luck.

The game is played with 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. The tiles are like a deck of playing cards. There are four suits, bonus tiles and jokers. Players start with 13 tiles, and the object of the game is to be the first player to complete a valid hand by drawing or melding discarded tiles.

In some Asian countries, there are are mahjong “schools” or parlors. It’s not unusual to find special areas for mahjong games at social events such as weddings. Today, mahjong can be played online.

Frizzell, who is proficient in five different styles of mahjong, formed a Meetup group for mahjong enthusiasts, which now has about 130 members.