The summer of 1967 has an unforgettable and distinctive soundtrack for me. It’s not a mental mix tape of "It’s My Party" (Lesley Gore), "Heat Wave" (Martha and the Vandellas) and "You Really Got a Hold on Me" (The Miracles) (though I remember and love them all) or any other chart topping songs. When I think back to that time in my life, what I hear is the distinctive click and clack of mah jongg tiles.
I lived on the Jersey shore and my family belonged to a beach club. I spent my days earning pocket money by babysitting. While their husbands worked, housewives brought their kids to the club Monday through Friday and paid 11- and 12-year-olds like me (older girls were too busy sunning and making out) to watch them for hours. While I made sure their children didn’t drown, built them sandcastles, and kept them happy with a fortune’s worth of sodas and ice cream cones, these ladies, greased from face to toe in suntan lotion (the kind that bronzed not protected), smoked, drank and played the game. Sitting in groups of four, the obsessive players spent entire afternoons engrossed in what’s essentially a complicated version of rummy that uses pieces made from bone or plastic instead of cards, imported from China in the early 1920s. Shuffling the tiles, dealing and discarding them produced the memorable noisy clatter.
The play and the players intrigued me in equal measure, and now I can revisit that fascination. Project Mah Jongg, a traveling exhibition currently showing at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwwod, explores the traditions, history and meaning of the game. Originally put together by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, this version of the show also features vintage mah jongg sets and rule cards supplied by Clevelanders, period costumes on loan from the Kent State University Museum, and a short documentary by local filmmakers Amy Wasserstrom Cummings and John Cummings called May the Tiles Be with You: Cleveland's Love Affair with Mah Jongg.
In a nod to the cross-cultural nature of the craze, which is enjoying a revival, the Maltz has organized three bus trips downtown to Li Wah in Asia Plaza Feb. 15, March 14 and April 17. The day starts at 10 a.m. with a tour of the exhibit and a nosh, and then moves on to the restaurant for a light Chinese lunch and some mahj playing in a private room at the restaurant. $15 per person, reservations required.
Another culinary-centric event this month, though not exactly related, is a conversation with three area chefs on Wednesday, Feb. 22 7-9 p.m. Sergio Abramoff (Sarava, Sergio’s), Michael Herschman (Lopez Southwestern Food Kitchen ) and Doug Katz (fire food and drink, Cleveland Museum of Art Café) will talk about their Jewish root, eating, family and table-time traditions. $10 per person in advance, $12 at the door.
More info on the Happenings calendar at MMJH.org. Tickets for all events and programs can be purchased by calling the Museum at 216-593-0575.