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

Once Upon a Time…09.13.2013

Posted on March 25th, 2014 by

The Baltimore Jewish Times publishes unidentified photographs from the collection of Jewish Museum of Maryland each week. If you can identify anyone in these photos and more information about them, contact Jobi Zink, Senior Collections Manager and Registrar at 410.732.6400 x226 or jzink@jewishmuseummd.org.


1996113060Date run in Baltimore Jewish Times:  September 13, 2013


PastPerfect Accession #:  1996.113.060


Status:  Identified! Rabbi Aaron Papermill, Army Chaplain, 1945.


Special Thanks To: Bernice Lebow and Sheri Papermill Lurie




Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Hamantaschen Bake Off….

Posted on March 24th, 2014 by

It all started with a lunch time conversation between Esther, Jobi, Sylvia (one of our volunteers), and myself. It was two or three weeks before Purim, and we were discussing all the different types of hamantaschen and debating their merits. Should one use cake dough or cookie dough? Is chocolate an acceptable filling? (the consensus on that last one was “no.”) And most importantly, of our own individual recipes for hamantaschen, whose was the best?

Then Sylvia said the fateful words: “You know there is only way to decide this, right? You have to have a hamantaschen bake off!”

We immediately knew that she was right. Esther, Jobi, and I quickly drew up some rules and guidelines for the contest and sent out an email to the staff, encouraging them and their volunteers to participate. The date was set for the Thursday following Purim to allow ample time for preparation.

Over the weekend of Purim, I camped out at my parents’ house so my mother could help me recreate her mother’s recipe. All Friday and Saturday, we bent over circles upon circles of dough, spooning lekvar or apricot jam into them and folding them into little triangles. (Funny story: having only ever heard my Bubby, who had a very strong Newark accent, say the word “lekvar,” I could never tell—until just now—if the word was supposed to be pronounced “lekvah” or “lekvar.” Fortunately, that’s what Google is for.) The process was a bittersweet one for us this year.  My Bubby died a year last Sunday, and for the last ten or more years of her life, she’d always come down to Baltimore to stay with us over Purim, and we’d make hamantaschen together. It felt very appropriate to commemorate the anniversary by making hamantaschen together.

The author making hamantaschen

The author making hamantaschen

Last Thursday, the day of the contest, four very different plates of hamantaschen made by two staff members and two volunteers entered the doors of the JMM. We had decided to make everything anonymous: nobody except for the competitors knew who had made the hamantaschen, and judging was open to anyone who wanted to participate. We were surprised by just how different each batch was: besides my very traditional lekvar (prune and raisin) and apricot hamantaschen, there were blueberry hamantaschen with dough that had a texture similar to scones, a batch that had a prune and mun (poppy seed) filling that tasted a bit like fig, and a very experimental batch with crispy chocolate dough filled with cream cheese and chocolate chips! All were delicious in their own way.

taste testing1 taste testing2 taste testing3

At first, it seemed that the chocolate/cream cheese hamantaschen were in the lead because we couldn’t stop talking about them. But when the judging had finished, and we tallied the votes, the dark horse blueberry hamantaschen came in first! The chocolate ones came in as a close second, and the prune/mun and the lekvar/apricot ones tied for third.

At this point, we revealed the bakers:

The  winning blueberry hamantaschen were made by none other than docent Robyn Hughes!

The winning blueberry hamantaschen were made by none other than docent Robyn Hughes!

The chocolate and cream cheese hamantaschen were made by our Marketing and Development Manager, Rachel Kassman.

The chocolate and cream cheese hamantaschen were made by our Marketing and Development Manager, Rachel Kassman.

The prune and mun hamantaschen were made by archives volunteer Dana Willan.

The prune and mun hamantaschen were made by archives volunteer Dana Willan.

And, of course, the lekvar and apricot hamantaschen were made by me.

And, of course, the lekvar and apricot hamantaschen were made by me.

Congratulations and Mazel Tov to Robyn Hughes, who gets the glory and bragging rights for making the best hamantaschen…until next year!

Thank you to everyone who participated, both has bakers and judges!

abby krolikA blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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