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'Project Mah Jongg'

Exhibit at Atlanta museum examines the link between Jewish Americans and the popular Chinese game
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Jack and Rosann Youngstein tour an exhibit looking at the meaning of the game in Jewish-American history at the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta.MCT
 Posted: 2:00 AM July 17, 2013

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 Roswell, Ga.-based 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.

The exhibit is a project of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and supported by the National Mah Jongg League, Sylvia Hassenfeld and 2wice Arts Foundation.

"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," adapted from the Atlanta-born Alfred Uhry's play. In one scene, Daisy and friends play the game while chattering away.

Frizzell estimates there are as many as 40 versions. There are even variations of game-play within these versions. The most popular versions being played in the United States today are American style, Cantonese style and Japanese style, also known as Riichi.

The spelling of the game is even different. The American version is typically spelled mah jongg. In Asia, it's often spelled mahjong.

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 also are 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.

The game is often played for money. In some Asian countries, there 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.

Nettie Rothstein of Roswell, who is in her 60s, was a late bloomer. She didn't start to play until her 30s, after nudging by her mother-in-law, a die-hard fan of the game.

"It's challenging and every year it's a new card with new hands," she said. "And you meet so many people. I meet women of all ages, and every woman has something to share. It's like half and half — social and the challenge of the game."



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