As Judy Greiner strolled through San Francisco's Chinatown in the mid-20th century, she couldn't help noticing that the bespectacled Jewish bubbes and tattooed Asian gamblers were eyeing one another with wary respect.
You wouldn't want to meet a representative of either group in a dark alley — at least, not if they were brandishing a mah-jongg set. Chances were that you'd stagger away hours later with an empty wallet and no clear recollection of how that sad state of affairs had come to pass.
"Chinese men and elderly Jewish women are the mah-jongg experts," Greiner, 69, of Owings Mills said after touring the "Project Mah Jongg" exhibit that opened this past week at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
The exhibit celebrates the fast-paced four-player game that is a mixture of luck and strategy, and which most likely originated in China in the mid- to late- 19th century. Mah-jongg has been described as similar to gin rummy except that it's a lot noisier and is played with tiles instead of cards. Instead of hearts and diamonds, mah-jongg has suits such as bamboo (bam), character (crak), and circle (dot).
Players try to accumulate a hand with the highest possible points. Each player in turn draws a tile randomly from the board, and then discards the least helpful piece. Because mah-jongg promotes gambling, it was temporarily banned in China in the middle of the 20th century but was later reinstated after the Cultural Revolution.
"We often saw Chinese men playing high-stakes games in Chinatown with bodyguards stationed outside the game room," Greiner said. "I knew that it wasn't exactly the same game that our mother was playing three times a week."
"Project Mah Jongg" pays homage to a cultural touchstone that generates enormous devotion among its adherents. When the exhibit ran in New York for nearly 10 months in 2010 and 2011, more than 100,000 people poured through the doors of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, drawn by the chance to see one of their ordinary daily activities enshrined.
"A lot of people don't see themselves as having a museum-worthy experience," says Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, who curated the traveling exhibit. "But mah-jongg has been an important part of Jewish-American life."
Organizers of mah-jongg associations acknowledge that the demographics of the American players skew heavily in the direction of elderly women. But even Jewish people who don't play themselves have vivid memories of a beloved mother, aunt or grandmother hosting a regular game.
"The games were all about food," Martens Yaverbaum says, and then smiled as she listed the familiar and comforting staples:
"Most people would serve Entenmann's coffee cake, pineapple slices and bridge mix. There was also Jell-O and jelly rings."
A lot of people remember that when they were children "they got to sit under the card table while the game was going on and listen to the grown-ups talk," she says.
Mah-jongg currently is undergoing a surge in popularity, fueled in part by an increase in the number of women in their 30s and 40s who are taking up the game.
The New York-based National Mah Jongg League, which was founded in 1937, keeps track of the number of mah-jongg rule cards purchased annually. (A hallmark of the American style is that a different card is issued each year that spells out the different suits and the points available for accumulating them. Proceeds from the sales are donated to charity.)
At the end of 2011, Martens Yaverbaum says, about 300,000 cards were sold by the League. Three years later, that figure is roughly 400,000 — a 33 percent increase.
"People want to have an encounter with something authentic in this digital age," she says, "and they want to have a sensory experience.
"You pick up these beautiful bone tiles and you throw them down. One of the delights of the game is that you call out the names of the suits — 'Five Crak' or 'Three Bam' or 'Six Dot.' There are wind tiles and dragon tiles, and a rule called 'doing the Charleston.'"
An early version of mah-jongg was introduced to America at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Martens Yaverbaum says — a time when the West's fascination with the Far East was at its height.
In the 1920s, mah-jongg had become a bona-fide craze. At the peak of the game's popularity in America, the demand for the sets was so great that China ran out of animal bones from which the tiles were made, Martens Yaverbaum says. The game's Chinese manufacturers were forced to import cow carcasses from the Chicago stockyards to meet the demand for new sets.
Composers as renowned as George Gershwin and Jerome Kern penned songs about the fad. By far the most popular ditty was "Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong," which was recorded by Eddie Cantor in 1924. (That tune's comic intent — Con Conrad's lyrics record a ditty of unsatisfactory meals, unwashed and unmended laundry and a family torn asunder by the matriarch's new obsession — unfortunately is marred by culturally insensitive lyrics.)