Of Mah Jongg, Passover and Cultural Adaptation

Posted on March 27th, 2014 by

We are just a few days away from the opening of Project Mah Jongg.   Throughout the last month the team has busily been preparing.  Ilene has been developing activities for kids, Trillion has been working on program concepts and Rachel has been applying her creativity to ways to let people know the exhibit is here.

As for me, I’ve been using my weekends to research a little bit about the history of Jews and board games.  This is a convenient convergence of the needs of the project and my 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; moving from the childhood classics (Candyland, Monopoly, Risk, Stratego) to the 3M games of the 1960s to Baltimore’s own Avalon Hill war games of the 1970s to the rail games of the 1980s and the Eurogames of the 1990s.  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).

A staff Mah Jongg lesson.

A staff Mah Jongg lesson.

Since we signed up for the exhibit, I have been intriguing audiences with the question “how did a game for Chinese menbecome 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.  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 connection to Torah or Talmud – e.g. bagels on Sunday morning, Borscht Belt shtick, discount camera supplies.

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 loose our awareness of cultural adaptations and assume that our customs are native to our history.  In researching games, I found a fascinating example: dreidel.  Like many of you, I grew up thinking that the game of dreidel was contemporary with the Maccabees.  But with a little on-line searching I learned that the game probably becomes a part of Hanukah in the 17th century.  The dreidel is based on a top called a teetotum and a game known as “put and take” that originated in England in the 1400s.  In the following century, the top moves to Germany where it gains some familiar letters – G for “ganze”, H for “halb”, N for “nicht” and S for “stell ein” meaning “put in”.  It became a popular Christmas game in Germany.  Like “potato latkes” (19th century) and “gift giving” (20th century), dreidel is a piece of the Hanukah celebration borrowed from our neighbors and given new meaning in a Jewish context.

Of course at this time of year my senses are more likely to be excited by the anticipation of matzah kugel than the memory of latkes.  However, Passover too is a great example 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.  We have made the meld and now it’s a part of us.


Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

You Took My Elephant

Posted on December 24th, 2012 by

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

News Flash:  We have a last minute addition to tomorrow’s Dragons and Dreidels presentation.  In addition to Ilene Spector’s delicious discourse on dumplings, in addition to our kosher fortune cookies and Chinese food, and on top of our great family activities and mah jongg games…yours truly, will be running a demonstration table as well.

It’s not a food demonstration – trust me, you wouldn’t want to eat what I cook.  And you will also be spared a dissertation on transliteration (see my blog post of Dec.. 12), but it will be a personal passion.  In honor of our celebration of East Asian-Judaic connections, I will be demonstrating about a half dozen board games with a real or imaginary Asian link.  As a board game enthusiast, I reasoned that if we could make a link with mah jongg, this was surely an excuse to bring some of my other treasures out of the closet.

The oldest game I will be bringing with is Wei Qi (that’s the Chinese name, it’s Korean name is Paduk, but you probably know it as Go).  People in China were playing this game 4,000 years ago (or about 2,000 years before dreidel).  It has just three or four rules, but takes a lifetime to master.  My Paduk board (since I purchased it in Korea, it only seems fair to call it Paduk) is only about 35 years old, but I still have vivid memories of carrying this monster block of wood about a mile through the streets of Seoul.  Wei Qi/Paduk/Go is without doubt the most popular East Asian game internationally.  Many countries have teams, including Israel.  You may want to check out the website of the Israeli Go Association (Israel-go.org).  Now I have to add גו to the long list of names for this game.

The second game I am bringing with is Xiang Qi.  A relative youngster, Xiang Qi is believed to have been developed from the Indian precursor to chess about 200 B.C.  Technically speaking, the set I will have on the table is actually the very closely related Korean variant called Janggi – but you can play the same games with either set.  The Xiang in Xiang Qi comes from the Chinese word for elephant, one of the pieces in the game.  Each piece has a Chinese character identifying it.  Here is a photo of several of the pieces in my set.  Can you pick out which ideogram is the elephant?  (By the way, elephants are not rooks, they move more like a limited version of the bishop in chess).

The third item on the table will be the Japanese game of Shogi.  This is another cousin of chess, but it has a truly distinctive feature.  The pieces are all the same color!  Each piece is pointed and the direction the point is facing signifies ownership of the piece.  This is not an aesthetic innovation.  In Shogi, when you capture a piece it doesn’t leave the game.  Instead you can drop a piece you’ve captured onto the Board on your turn, switching its allegiance.  This game emerges in the 16th and 17th century in Japan, at a time when it was not uncommon for real generals to change the course of battle by changing sides.  I’ve looked for a Jewish link to every game, and I believe that one of the three acknowledged American Shogi masters is a Jewish gentleman from Potomac, MD – but this still requires a little investigation.  I’ll also be illustrating the child’s game of Hasami Shogi – I call it a child’s game, because my children always beat me at it.

To round out the table I’ll be demonstrating two games that sound like they should be Chinese but really are American/German.  The first of these is Chinese Checkers.  This game was invented in Germany in the 1880s under the name Stern Halma (Stern = Star in German, Halma = Jump in Greek).  While the shape of the board is very suggestive, I haven’t traced down any Jewish connection to the original game.  However, the man who rediscovered the game and patented it as Chinese Checkers was Jack Pressman of Pressman Toys.  It was a big hit in 1928.  Unlike conventional checkers, you don’t capture pieces when you jump them and unlike other classic strategy games, up to six people can play at the same time.

Finally, I will be illustrating the Eurogame called “In the Year of the Dragon”.  The theme of the game is the cycle of life in medieval China.  The reality is that the game was designed by Stefan Feld in 2011.  Feld is one of dozens of game designers in Europe who has gained a following in the hobby in the last decade.  Nearly 150,000 people gather in Essen, Germany each year to see the latest innovations in one of the world’s oldest pastimes.  In America, a handful of companies translate the German, French and Italian games and make them accessible to thousands of avid board gamers here.  My former neighbor from Skokie, IL, Jay Tummelson, and his company Rio Grande Games translated and published “In the Year of the Dragon”.

So if you are curious about games, you have another reason to come to “Dragons and Dreidels”.  If not, just think about savoring those dumplings!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland