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




Taking Leave

Posted on February 5th, 2014 by

At the end of this month we say good-bye to Passages Through the Fire:  Jews and the Civil War.  I, for one, will be sad to see it go.  I’ve not only enjoyed the exhibit and the chance to work with Karen and Todd on our “Maryland edition”, but also the outstanding programs that Trillion put together and the fun we’ve had with our volunteer docents and museum educators on the special tours.

Closing February 27th!

Closing February 27th!

I’ve gained dozens of new insights over the last few months but the one that sticks with me is actually about “saying good-bye”.

Ross Kelbaugh

Ross Kelbaugh

When Ross Kelbaugh came to speak at JMM at the beginning of December, he spoke about the boom in photography in Baltimore at the start of the Civil War (and the involvement of members of the Jewish community like the Bendann brothers and David Bacharach in this new “high tech” industry).  As many as 50 photo studios were doing business here in 1861.  Why the boom?  Well one of the causes that Kelbaugh points to is a technological innovation know as cartes de visite.  Just before the start of the war, photographers perfected the technique of printing multiple copies of playing card-sized images to card stock.  These images were affordable, even for people of modest means and could be easily slipped into the mail for loved ones.  You can imagine that soldiers sent to staging areas, like Baltimore, were very anxious to share pictures of themselves in uniform with their loved ones and images of nearby battlefields could bring the war home in a way that was unthinkable just 10 years earlier.  This keen interest fueled the photography craze (more about this can be found in a New York Times’ “Disunion” column by Andrea Volpe from August 6, 2013).

School students visit Passages Through the Fire.

School students visit Passages Through the Fire.

I look at this as a first revolution in the concept of “away”.  For thousands of years, when husbands and sons went off to affairs of war or commerce, there was an absolute loss of connection.  Their wives, children and siblings in most cases had only their memories to rely on (or perhaps an old portrait) to invoke the image of the person who was truly “away”.  But the Civil War chipped away at the concept that saying good-bye completely severed visual contact with those who were away.

Today, we’ve experienced a second revolution in “away”.  With Skype, Face Time, Facebook and more, we almost never completely lose visual contact with those who have gone away, whether they are at summer camp or at a base 10,000 miles from home.   The technology has changed what it means to take leave and endure separation.

All this is not to say that we have solved the problems of being apart.  Images can be a poor substitute for human contact.  But nothing ever leaves us as completely as it once did, and we’ll have the pictures of the Civil War exhibit on our website to prove it.

 

~Marvin

(editor’s note:  Passages Through the Fire closes on February 27th.  Due to the fragile nature of the artifacts this will be the end of the exhibit tour, everything will be returned to the lenders.  If you haven’t seen it yet, we encourage you to take advantage of your last opportunity)

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Keeping the “tribe” without the “tribalism”

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by

What do political scientist Norm Ornstein, the Pew Study and the American Civil War have to do with one another?  I can’t speak to their relationships in the real world, but I would like to share some thoughts about they have started to link up in my mind.

Ornstein, author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, has been speaking recently about a phenomenon he calls “tribalism”.  There are many aspects to his analysis, but at its core he defines the situation as one where people start to care more about who is making the argument than about the content of the argument.  Politicians switch positions on issues depending on which party or which leader has made the proposal.  Tribalism makes compromise nearly impossible – because while it’s conceivable to find middle ground on an issue there is no middle ground on identity.

It has occurred to me that this type of tribalism is a feature of the modern world that is by no means restricted to Washington.  The Pew Study is the most recent effort to slice and dice the American Jewish community and discern its subgroups.  I am aware of the controversy over the methodologies of the studies but I don’t think anyone would deny that differences within our community sometimes impede our collective well-being.  There are real disagreements about matters of policy, but I am often struck by the fact that the fiercest struggles are matters of identity.  At a recent forum it happened that a panel was introduced only by their names.  About midway through the policy discussion, a clearly distressed audience member raised her hand and said “we all have prejudices, tell us something about who you are so we will know your prejudices.”  The single item I found most striking in the Pew Study was that when the questions weren’t about labels or rituals, but instead about values – there was a surprising level of commonality across all groups.  I manage a museum, so I have a vested interest in the preservation of the inanimate objects we imbue with meaning (what flags we fly, how we dress, what we use to worship), but I find myself wondering whether we sometimes put so much value in the distinctive aspects of our material culture that we lose sight of the human bonds that tie us all together.

And this takes me to the topic of the Civil War.  When Ornstein was recently asked if this is the worst state that Congress has ever been in, he conceded that it was worse in the years immediately prior to the Civil War…but added, who wants to use that as a standard of comparison?  Our current exhibit points out that the war not only divided the Union but exacerbated divisions within the Jewish community.  As “who” became more important than “what”, factions became irreconcilable.  In many cases people stopped talking to their neighbors and shut themselves off from alternate points of view.  In the echo chambers that emerged, progressively more radical solutions started to seem normal.  Families and congregations were split forever.

I think that identity is a basic human need, and that museums like JMM perform a public service by expanding understanding of elements of both our common identity and of the distinctive sub-segments of the Jewish experience.  However, I hope we always keep in mind that identity should not be a wall but a window, something that draws us into new worlds and helps us reexamine our own assumptions.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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