A Mahjong Mystique? Jewish American Women and the Paradoxes of Postwar Domesticity

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Annelise Heinz, University of Texas at Dallas
The Chinese game of mahjong was a short-lived but potent cultural phenomenon in the 1920s United States, with a long-lasting legacy among Jewish Americans. Mahjong is a game of skill played by four people with domino-like “tiles.” It was also a powerful tool Jewish women used to create ethnic female communities after World War II.

Jewish American women had been playing mahjong since the 1920s fad, but the Cold War era nurtured a flourishing and unique gendered Jewish mahjong culture. What emerged reflected and reinforced the dominant consensus culture of white middle-class suburbia but also provided an unusual and complex realm of contestation: Jewish women carved female-only spaces in their family-centered realms. With mahjong, homes could become places of female community rather than isolation. In contrast to school-hour kaffeeklatsches or couples’ games of bridge, with mahjong Jewish women gained an entitlement to peer-oriented leisure in the home – explicitly at the expense of their household labor and to the exclusion their family members’ comfort – at the very height of the postwar “domestic revival.”

Scholars have mined the records of women’s civic leadership and religious participation to debate the limitations of Jewish women’s worlds after World War II. Yet the history of mahjong illuminates women’s lives in the spaces between what has been examined. Mahjong was a major part of hundreds of thousands of women’s lives. On one hand, the neighborhood circles and home-based games reinforced the domestic foundation of women’s lives. On the other, mahjong’s unique culture challenged the family focus of postwar domesticity and brought women’s recreation and peer relationships to the foreground.