“They still play mah-jongg?” a New York native asks me. “I always wondered how an ancient Chinese game got into the hands of suburban Jewish women.”
Mah-jongg’s American origins interweave two immigrant cultures — Chinese and Jewish — then separate them by rules, styles, and traditions. What remains is the connection: the camaraderie and the constancy that give the game its glue, whether you’re playing with Hong Kong rules or with rules handed down by the National Mah Jongg League in New York.
When articles appeared two years ago in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal heralding mah-jongg’s resurgence, hats were tipped to the group with whom the game is closely associated: the grandmothers — or “bubbes,” as they are known in Yiddish (“It’s pronounced BU-bee! Not bubba!” admonishes one player in a 2001 Jewish Daily Forward article) — who congregated in postwar living rooms across the country to “bam” and “crak” their way through a gabby afternoon with the girls. These women, now in their 70s and 80s, learned to play as young mothers, when their children were small.
But the articles weren’t just a backward glance to a fading pastime. It was mah-jongg’s current allure that made headlines: “Mah jongg takes the 30-somethings by storm,” “Gen-X and Web Spurring a Revival of Mah Jongg,” and “Not Your Mother’s Mah-Jongg.”
“If you had told us five years ago that we’d be sitting around playing this game every Tuesday night, we would have said, ‘No way! That’s an old ladies’ game!’ ” offers the attorney, Tara, as she and her four friends shuffle the tiles, facedown, on the extra table that Trophy’s has accommodated them with.
An event planner, a speech therapist, two attorneys — one is also a fee-only financial planner — and one stay-at-home mom who “used to be in real estate…now I supervise three kids.” Two married, one engaged, and two single, at either end of a decade. So much for stereotypes.
“At the beginning, we played at each other’s houses,” says the event planner, Heidi. “When I had the baby, we ended up at my house, so I could stay close. Then,” she adds with a wink, “my husband kicked us out…”
“He’s actually a very nice man,” interjects financial planner Julie, who, in her early 30s, is the youngest of the group. As the fifth-hand bettor in this game, she wanders the edge of the table, sampling snacks and supplying statistics. “He’s also tall, blond, gorgeous…”
“…and now we meet here every Tuesday,” Heidi continues, stepping over the spousal praise. “My mom taught us a year ago,” she continues. “We’re finally good enough that my mother lets us play with her group at the country club.”
A San Diego sports bar/restaurant only seems a long distance from a Brooklyn tenement. Not much has changed in what bonds mah-jongg players. “I’m sure we talk about sex more than our mothers did,” says the recently engaged Penny.
“I don’t know, you guys,” argues Barbara, the real estate agent. “My mom is pretty frisky. She likes to say, ‘Barb, you girls didn’t invent anything.’ ”
What they didn’t invent was their love and loyalty to this game and to each other, nor the intensity of their commitment. “I’d play three times a week if I could,” says Barb. “Sometimes we play Fridays and Sundays, too.”
“Now we’re addicted,” adds Penny, whose ring flashes prettily against the ivory tiles as she grabs someone else’s discard and furrows her brow in strategy.
“I’m definitely hooked,” Tara says, rearranging tiles on her caddy. “I love the game, but I think it’s also about the female connection.”
Playing mah-jongg every week gives these women a break from their own busy lives and lets them learn about each other’s. When the five of them met — before mah-jongg, marriages, and maternity — it took a Jewish singles event to get them together; months would pass without contact. “Now we don’t go two weeks without seeing each other,” Julie says.
“There’s always a problem that someone needs input on,” says Heidi, “and everyone has a different suggestion.”
“We talk and eat,” says Barbara, as she throws back a tile. “Those two things are never a problem.”
A hush falls over the table as another game begins and the tiles are divided. Tara recalls an ad that read “Seeking mahj player. No talking.” They all laugh, recalling that it took them four years to find out all five of them had the same middle name: Lynn. What took so long? “We all talk at the same time,” Tara says.
“Sometimes we just like to be quiet so we can really concentrate,” Heidi says in a measured tone.
Julie whispers to me, “We used to talk a lot less when we didn’t understand the game.”
But it’s still, after all, a game. “We’re all very competitive,” Tara tells me as she eyes the others’ activity. “And besides, she’s taken all of our money.” She points to Heidi, this game’s winner, who’s been known to simultaneously pick tiles, breast-feed, and take business calls.
As the game ends, Penny confesses she was after Barbara’s Red Dragon and Tara confirms what she suspected about Heidi’s hand. Though it’s all friendly and lighthearted, you sense the eagerness to play has as much to do with besting your best friend as it does with securing your suits.
The next game starts and the girls follow the now-familiar steps of setting up — racking the wall, rolling the dice, dealing, turning over tiles. These are the same gestures I will notice when I later visit the Wednesday-morning mah-jongg game at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, just a mile and two generations down the road. Wouldn’t their mothers be pleased?
Julie opens the mah-jongg set (about the size of a clarinet case) and shows me the plaque, set against the back of the wooden case. “In honor of our mothers,” it reads, listing their mothers’ names in alphabetical order. “From the girls.” They had one mother-daughter dinner in 1999. With half their mothers longtime mah-jongg players, the next get-together might include an intergenerational game. Though the girls might not be old enough for a mahj cruise, they did spend the day at La Costa recently. “Of course, we brought the game,” smiles Tara, who’s sorry she has to leave early, but she’s got a meeting downtown in 20 minutes.
The four-person game, similar to rummy, is played with 152 tiles (once bamboo, bone, or ivory; now plastic or Plexiglas made to look like bamboo, bone, or ivory) similar in size to dominos, arranged in suits: circles or buttons (dots), Chinese characters (craks), and bamboos (bams), plus dragons and winds, jokers and flowers. The colorful, engraved tiles are drawn and discarded, announced aloud — “one bam,” “two crak,” “four dot” — until a player completes a winning hand — a certain combination of tiles — and declares “Mah-jongg” (loose if not literal translation: “That’s it!”).
Well, that’s not all of it; this is the way “American” (or “Jewish”) mah-jongg is played. That combination is provided on the three-panel laminated cards studied at any game where Jewish women, young and old, play mah-jongg today. The rule cards, issued and updated annually by the National Mah Jongg League, arrive every April, as eagerly anticipated as fall fashions. They offer the year’s standard hands and winning combinations, organized by suits and status. (By comparison, in Chinese mah-jongg — also known as Ma Cheuk and still considered the national game of China — winning hands do not change.)
If you’re not Jewish or Chinese, what do you know from mah-jongg? The game has worked its way into the culture through films and television, but its insider nature leaves even those within the Jewish and Chinese cultures confused. Maybe you’re recalling Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, the book or the movie (1993). At least in that case, the sets matched: Chinese name, Chinese game, Chinese players. A few years before that film’s release, the very goyische Jessica Tandy impersonated a Southern Jewish mah-jongg–playing matron in Driving Miss Daisy (1989). In the ’90s, TV’s assorted Jewish characters discussed mah-jongg among themselves, but unless you were Jewish or from New York, how could you make sense of George and Jerry’s joking about the game on Seinfeld? Or Fran Drescher’s Queens-nasal foursome playing mahj on The Nanny? Even diehard Woody Allen fans who’ve committed Annie Hall to memory might appropriate a punch line — “My mother locked herself in the bathroom and took an overdose of mah-jongg tiles” — without understanding the setup.
The “ancient” Chinese game of mah-jongg — “mah” means flax plant; “jongg” means sparrow — dates to the time of Confucius, say some legends. Historians claim the game a 19th-century invention once reserved for the ruling classes and played only by men. When China became a republic, access to the game opened up, such that in the 1920s American oil executive Joseph Babcock, who became hooked on mah-jongg while in China, did his Yankee duty and pirated the game back home with him, translating the Chinese characters’ numerical values for Americans and setting off a game craze that crossed the country. Mah-jongg was played feverishly in the ’20s and ’30s, but the variety of rules and styles — as many as 21 — made it difficult for consistent play. In 1937, an enterprising group of German-Jewish women took out an ad in the New York Times, inviting interested players to meet. They formed the National Mah Jongg League, the arbiter of rules and regulations, the collector of dues and donations. (Mah-jongg is played many ways by many rules. In The Mah-jung Manyal, published in 1923 by Henry Snyder, hands do not change annually as they do in Jewish-American mah-jongg; nor do they change in “military” mah-jongg, played by the Ohio Air Force base’s Wright-Patterson rules, written in the late ’40s.)
What started as a 32-member league now estimates membership at 200,000. Over its 65 years, the nonprofit National Mah Jongg League has donated thousands of dollars to charities and cultivated a Jewish-dominated board of directors and membership (though non-Jewish groups and individuals also belong). In 2000, recognizing the Internet’s capacity to fertilize the game’s popularity, the organization set up a website. As a result, the game has resonated with a computer-conscious younger generation, whose all-hours online play has helped foster a growing trend among older players and new fanatics: mah-jongg marathons, tournaments, and cruises.
Roberta and Steve Last sit at desks on opposite sides of their small travel office, Travel Wizard, in La Mesa. Our talk is periodically interrupted by a ringing phone, which cues one of them to pick up the call, while the other continues the conversation. Mah-jongg esoterica overlaps with airline reservations in the fluid exchange of long-married, practiced multitaskers. Both are experienced mah-jongg players and partners in the tournament (and tourism) business; they’re used to playing the left-brain–right-brain symphony. Steve, a mathematician and practicing accountant, learned to play ten years ago; Roberta learned when she was ten years old.
“It’s summer in Brooklyn, and we don’t know what to do with ourselves. So my girlfriend’s mother says to us, ‘I’ll teach you a game.’ We continued to play on and off for years. But then I stopped, and I didn’t play again until after I was married. It was a good way to get out at night; I left the kids with Daddy, and my girlfriends and I played at each other’s house.”
This isn’t much different from her mother’s generation, women who would have left the kids at home for a night out with the girls. “Except maybe she just walked down two floors or across the street…” Roberta says. “Whereas we get in the car and drive.”
I ask Roberta how she picked up the game again. “It was a rainy Saturday night about ten years ago; we were going to go to the movies with another couple, and we thought, No, let’s play a game instead. Let’s teach the husbands how to play. At first, they don’t want to play mah-jongg; they think it’s a woman’s game…”
“…Even though,” Steve interrupts, “in the Orient it’s a man’s game…”
“So, we teach the husbands how to play — and, of course, they think they know better than us — but we had a good time. When I heard about the tournaments, I thought it sounded like fun; it was going to be in Palm Springs, so I said to Steven, ‘Do you think we should go?’ Steven was the only man — all the women were thrilled. So, we go to the Palm Springs tournament in 1992, we have a wonderful time, and, of course, he gets a higher score than I do.”
“…And I won the session…”
“And he won the session! So all the women, when their husbands came to pick them up, they said, ‘Oh! He knows how to play; should we teach you how to play?’ ”
“We’ve only played together in three or four tournaments,” Steve explains, “and I think all four tournaments I won…”
“All right, so shut up.”
“How much did you win?” husband asks wife. “What’s your total dollar amount?”
Roberta waves Steve away and takes another call. While she talks about the price of a stateroom, he tries to explain the nuances of the game’s tactical maneuvering to a confused listener. “It plays like rummy, but you can call another dead.” I nod my head. “In another game, you may know what the other person is playing and know that they’re not going to make it, but you can’t call them dead.” I nod my head again, trying to place rummy. Have I played rummy? “When you call somebody dead, it gives you an advantage, because then you have more picks.” “Okay,” I say, as we leave rummy and move on to addition. “So if there’s 40 tiles left,” says Steve, now a math teacher at the chalkboard, “instead of getting one-quarter, you get one-third.” That I understand. Sort of. “It’s more defensive than any other card game I can think of.” So much for a group of old ladies chatting while they toss tiles and nosh fruit.
Roberta hangs up the phone and tells me about the 1994 tournament in Newport Beach, when Marjorie Troum approached her and Steve to start a business. “The next thing we knew, we were partners.” Roberta admits it took some time for the tournaments to take hold. “Our smallest group was 10, and our biggest tournament on the cruise was 93. The first in Vegas was 48.” Vegas brings them in from all over, Roberta says; it’s been a big draw for years. “Connecticut, Florida, quite a bit; there’s a group from Arkansas that plays. With September 11, we had a few cancellations, but not too many.” She launches into a story about meeting someone she baby-sat in Borough Park 30-odd years ago and then into another tale about two friends who meet again after 40 years. These impromptu reunions are not uncommon. “People talk about it on the internet: ‘Are you going to this tournament?’ ‘Are you going? I’ll meet you there!’ So you get to meet someone you’ve been playing online with for months. This year, we signed up 1000 total people for our seven tournaments. Our mailing list now is over 2000.”
When the National Mah Jongg League joined the internet game world two years ago, there were glitches. “It took 45 minutes to play one game,” Roberta reports. “An average game shouldn’t take more than 10, 15 minutes.” Since that time, online play has been streamlined, and, as anticipated, the site has engaged a new audience: the “young and techno-savvy,” according to the November 2000 New York Times article. This merging of skills — “typing and talking, clicking and picking” — is a perfect match for mah-jongg’s sensibilities and for those of the players it attracts. The internet’s success is worldwide, encouraging all manner of play: Chinese or American, against human or computer, with friends from the old neighborhood or folks from the old country.
But Roberta insists that modern technology can’t take the place of the game she learned in a Brooklyn tenement. “You have a routine,” she says. “I play Tuesday nights and have for at least ten years. We talk about the same things — ah, we had a terrible this…ah, you couldn’t believe what happened — it’s our venting time, our weekly support group.”
I ask Steve how it’s different for him. “Look, we’re married,” he says. “Do you wanna give us a divorce?”
Roberta rolls her eyes and picks up the phone.
“The tournament is more structured,” Steve continues. “There’s no crosstalk. But at the home games? Women are women…” If he had it his way, Steve would play more like the Asians, where the hands don’t change every year.
“This is why guys wear the same shoes, day after day,” Roberta tells me, noting the gender split. “And women say, ‘I can’t wear that again. I gotta change.’”
“Whaddya mean, ya gotta change?” protests Steve. “Why change?”
“Either way,” Roberta adds, “by the end of the year, I’ve memorized the card…”
“By the end of the month!” Steve says.
“The most important thing,” counters Roberta, “is that it makes people think. We get a lot of widows — it gives them something to look forward to. That’s where the cruises come in…”
“But,” Steve interjects, “instead of just a single person sitting down for lunch by herself…”
“She has her four friends to go with her,” Roberta completes the thought. “They’re not just going to some foreign port; they’re going with a group. It’s like you’re traveling with family.”
And, like family, sometimes they can drive you crazy.
“These women!” Roberta says. “They’ll go see the show on the cruise, then they’ll go back and play a game. They’re up till midnight, one o’clock, and up early for breakfast and back at it again.”
Do they see a future in mah-jongg with the next generation? “The younger kids don’t appreciate it as much now, but as they get older, and they want some time to be with other adults and sit down and have fun, that’s when they’ll appreciate it. Some younger people come on the cruises, usually a mother and daughter. Our daughter Andrea, who’s 26, we’ve taught her how to play…and she’s teaching her husband.”
With several mah-jongg–related businesses running concurrently, how do the Lasts stay interested in the game? Perhaps I underestimate the importance of competition. “Listen,” Steve says, “we go under the same name online when we play. And the women who know us will ask, ‘Roberta or Steve? Who’s there?’ I usually write back, ‘It depends. If we win, it’s Steve; if we lose, it’s Roberta.’ ”
Marjorie Troum drives down from Los Angeles one Friday a month to play mahj with a group of women in Fairbanks Ranch (this is the country club Heidi spoke of at Trophy’s; Heidi’s mother, Sue, has played with Troum for years). On the morning we meet in the Golden Triangle, Troum has been stuck in traffic for two hours, but the minute the talk turns to tiles, she leaves all frustration behind.
Troum is the daughter of Dorothy Myerson, whose 1937 booklet “That’s It!,” considered the definitive instructional manual, set the standards for the National Mah Jongg League. In 1939, Myerson was hired to do mah-jongg demonstrations at Macy’s department store in midtown Manhattan; this eventually led to a regular radio show and a Sunday-night slot in television’s early years. “My mother was really ahead of her time,” Troum tells me over coffee at Nordstrom’s café in University Towne Centre. “She was doing a mail-order business for mah-jongg supplies in the ’40s!” After Myerson’s death in 1971, her daughter took over the business, supplying mah-jongg sets and other related items around world. (She also maintains an affiliation with the Officers Wives Club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and acts as the liaison between the National Mah Jongg League and San Diego mahj-playing groups.)
When Troum moved from New Jersey to Coronado in 1990, she brought her Mah-Jongg East tournaments with her. In 1993, she met Steve and Roberta Last, who sponsored their own tournaments. East and West met again when, at a Newport Beach tournament, Troum asked the couple, “Are you still looking for a partner?” Together they began promoting events, which have grown from 40 in 1993 to 100 in 2002. They also combine forces to organize and sponsor marathon cruises and 20-round tournaments. (The next Marjorie Troum Mah-Jongg Tournament West “Cruise, Schmooze & Mahj” is scheduled for January 26–February 2, 2003, departing from New Orleans to Mexican ports; March 12–14 is in Las Vegas at the Stardust; March 28–30, it’s the Radisson Hotel in Newport Beach.)
“What is so compelling about this game?” She thinks a minute. “It’s a challenge; you have to think on your feet — or, rather, sitting down. It keeps you alert, and you can’t be distracted; you have to focus. It may be the one time of the day when you can. And if you win, you’re so happy — you might win only 25 cents, but you’re so happy!”
A former kindergarten teacher and a mother of four, Troum is convinced that exposure is essential. “If there are young children in the household and they watch their parents play, they want to play. My granddaughter knows how to play.” But in her case, the mah-jongg connection might have skipped a generation were it not for the internet. “Take my daughter. For years she wasn’t interested in playing. But now she’s hooked; she’s on the computer sometimes four or five times a night. The internet is fabulous. People are connecting all over the world. And they can meet each other at these tournaments.” So far, Troum’s not worried about being displaced by the internet. “I’m just thrilled to still be a part of it!” she says, as she hands me two mah-jongg–tile key chains, one of which I mail immediately to my mother.
San Diego’s Jewish community is sourced, like most of the local population, from transplants. So tracing the community’s mah-jongg practice means returning to the American cities where Jews first congregated — New York, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles. It was in these inner-city enclaves — and later in the outlying suburban neighborhoods — that Jewish women learned mah-jongg, then taught their friends and families. They watched the game flourish in the ’40s and ’50s, only to send those mahj sets packing when generations of urban Jews headed west. Many of those Eastern and Midwestern transplants retired to San Diego, where they craved community and yearned to start another game.
I am halfway up the stairs to the second floor of the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center when brewing coffee and layers of perfume point me to the senior center’s mah-jongg game.
Five card tables full of women — many my mother’s age, some younger — regard my entrance. Rita Kahn, the unofficial ambassador, waves me to her table, where I perch to watch this familiar game I know so little about. As I observe one woman sweep tiles in an arc with the edge of her caddy, I sense something familial, like bread-kneading in a house of bakers. When another player stops by to introduce herself, she fiddles with the strap of my blue bra, which has poked out from under my matching top. As this familiar stranger tucks the strap back into place, I am struck by the lack of intrusiveness in her intimate gesture and the matter-of-fact way she grooms me — so second nature and maternal it could be my mother standing beside me. Strap secured, she pats me on the shoulder and moves on to another vantage point.
The game confuses me, no matter how much I observe the tiles, plucked and cupped to hide their elegant, engraved Chinese faces. The elaborate ritual of beginning — the mixing of the tiles (called “table swimming” by Chinese players); the dividing of the tiles into four two-tiered walls; the counting off of the requisite 13 tiles; the cross-table exchange of tiles known as “the Charleston” — all this before the first game begins. For practiced players, this do-si-do is swift and subtle, the movement almost dancelike in its give-and-take grace.
“You look familiar,” says Sabina, the woman to Kahn’s left. “You look like I should know you.”
This is just how I feel about her and the rest of the room. Give or take a few years, some jewelry, and gradations of gray, these could be the same gals who played with my mother in Rancho Bernardo for 20 years. This same phenomenon would make it easier for my mother to move from the Midwest to the West Coast, from Northern California to Southern California, where other Jewish women would not only play the same game but “look familiar.”
“Don’t make us sound old,” says Sabina, who doesn’t look up from her tiles as she rearranges suits and contemplates possible combinations. I ask how important mah-jongg has been to her. She recalls a game that lasted through New York City’s blackout in the ’70s. “We played with candles! Nothing was going to stop us…” Before long, Kahn, bedecked with mahj jewelry (tile earrings and a toothy bracelet) shouts “mah-jongg!” It’s a banner win with a kitty of $8.54.
“I’m here 4 years,” says the redhead to Kahn’s right. “And before that, I played for 20 years in Philadelphia.” Trim and wry, she sweeps up the tiles at game’s end; it’s her set they’re playing with today (players rotate sets; many are as old as I am). I find out later that the redhead is widowed only two weeks. “This is her first game since the loss,” Kahn says, pointing out another function of the game: grief therapy. “It takes your mind off things,” Kahn says, “and it keeps your mind agile. You have to pay attention to play on a decent level; sometimes you can’t even really talk that much. And you don’t need a partner; this is social but without having to have a mate.”
Betty Pitlock, who is among the players today, is credited with starting the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center’s Wednesday-afternoon game. She joined the center 18 years ago when she moved from New York to the University City area at her daughter’s suggestion. “We were going to move near the 54th Street center, but my daughter said, ‘No, Mom. This is the up-and-coming place.’ ” Four players used the children’s art room once a week until Pitlock brought in enough people to upgrade to a bigger room; each new building brought new members, more hands, and more games. “Eventually, they gave me a certificate for bringing in the most members.” Games begin at noon and run till 3:00 p.m., with attendance depending on who’s playing with whom and how far they have to drive. “The original five women are still playing in this group, it must be 15 years now.” When she was a new mother, Pitlock tells me, “You waited until your youngest child was old enough for school. Then you had a little more time and wanted to be sociable.” Some of the talk would be about the children, and that hasn’t changed. Mothers still talk about their kids, young ones or grown-ups. And now, with the advent of the internet, it’s possible to mix the two. “You can call up your mother on the East Coast,” Rita Kahn marvels, “and tell her when you’re going to be online.”
Kahn thinks the internet is one of the reasons more people in their 30s and 40s want to learn the game. To accommodate this group, she began offering a nighttime class at the community center last fall. The Tuesday-night class was organized for working women; the hope was that younger people might come. Most of the 25 folks that show up by 6:30 are at least 35. The big surprise — among the single and divorced and married women — are the two men.
Situated behind my own rack of bams and craks, jokers and dragons, I only half listen to Kahn’s instruction and instead try to make sense of my tiles. The suits. The characters. The sequences. The colors. When it’s my turn to trade, I stall — which combinations should I try for? Which tiles should I keep? And on top of that, I should watch what my neighbor picks too?
“Yeah, okay,” I answer, biting my lip. I throw out a tile — one I should have kept.
“See what happens when you don’t listen?” Sherrill says, snapping up my discard. When Kahn starts explaining the concept of “stealing” — during the Charleston exchange, when players pass tiles across and to the side and can opt to blindly take tiles — Donna leans toward me and whispers, “Where there’s ‘stealing,’ perhaps there’s ‘cheating’?” We laugh. She’s as confused as I am.
But not everyone is. Andy, one of the two men in the class, is in his mid-30s. Though he’s Jewish, neither his mother nor grandmother played mah-jongg, but he did have a friend in high school whose mother played, “and I heard him complain about how long she would play and how much money she would lose.” He was curious about the game but didn’t pursue it till he heard about the class. I ask him why he thinks more men don’t play. “I think it’s mainly a cultural thing. Women tend not to play poker and men tend not to knit.” He figures it has something to do with women not working when the game was first popular. “Being at home, mah-jongg was something they could play with other women.” He doesn’t seem to care whether he plays with men or women, though he admits the conversation might be different. Ultimately, he’s most interested in the game: “I like the fact that it requires quite a bit of thought. The hands can be fairly complex, and depending on the circumstances it may be necessary to change the hand you are trying to go for in the middle of a game. As with many games, there is an element of luck, but skill is certainly very important.”
Andy and the three women he plays with in class will go on to have a few private lessons with Kahn and then play every other Tuesday. But the foursome are too new at the game to be among the 32 players who signed up for the center’s first mah-jongg tournament in December; maybe this year.
When I ask my mother about her early mah-jongg memories, she, like most of the longtime players I speak to, culls anecdotes that she’s affixed to the game the way barnacles are affixed to the hull of a ship.
“It was my entrée,” my mother reminisces, as she pulls another foot of packing tape around the edge of a cardboard box. It’s the spring of 2001, and she’s moving out of her Rancho Bernardo condo, where she’s resided since 1978, to live near my eldest sister in Knoxville, Tennessee. Though this east Tennessee college town is not the first place you imagine to be a hotbed of Jewish life — let alone of mah-jongg — Knoxville, it turns out, has a thriving Jewish community, an active Conservative temple of 250 families, and plenty of women who want to learn mah-jongg. (“I can rattle off the names of 40 women in the synagogue who play now or want to learn,” my sister Ellen reports. “My age, your age — even younger, in their 30s.”) This will be the fourth time in her adult life that my mother will seek out, locate, attach to, and thrive in a weekly game. It has become her social ticket, and she’s been pulling out that stub since she was a newlywed.
“Do you know I started going into labor with Jeff while playing mahj?” (Her firstborn son, my brother, turns 55 next month.) “And I think I finished the game!” At the time, my parents lived in a small town near Indianapolis, and like many young Jewish women new to a community, my mother made her contacts through the temple sisterhood. “At the beginning, I was just a substitute. Then I became a regular. I was 24; everyone was older than I was, probably in their 30s, and much more sophisticated. We played in the afternoons, once a week. And the luncheons they put on! Two women in particular always hosted the game…they were very competitive. They were both Austrian and had married brothers — I think they were Holocaust survivors. They competed over who could fix the most elegant meal — and these were gourmet lunches, let me tell you.”
Ten years and three children later, my parents headed west to Northern California and Marin County, where again my mother made mahj her connective tissue. “Through the temple I got in with a five-handed game — a betting game; every fourth hand someone would sit out. We met once a month — remember those Monday nights, Susie?”
I remember the clatter and the cakes. When I was young, monthly Monday mah-jongg night meant the good china, the big coffee urn, the carefully cut melon, and many desserts, including a pumpkin bundt cake with drooping dollops of cream-cheese frosting dotted with walnut halves. My wandering finger would be met with a quick potch in the tuchas (“Don’t touch that cake, Susie!”), so I’d wait till they were bamming and crakking in the living room before I pilfered my piece.
My memories of those games are not unlike what author Hope Edelman (Motherless Daughters) calls “sensory images” in the 1998 film Mah-Jongg: The Tiles That Bind. The award-winning documentary, which has made the rounds of Jewish film festivals from San Diego to Boca Raton, chronicles the odd overlap of two cultures that forged this game as a centerpiece for Jewish female leisure life. The half-hour film mixes Chinese with American-Jewish play, the two cultures’ scenes intercut and cued by musical contrast, Asian string plucking versus klezmer reed intoning.
As the movie’s mah-jongg enthusiasts — many of them players for 30, 40, 50 years — explain their “addiction,” it becomes clear how often the game has been a response to the times. As one woman notes about her early years of play, “The men were away at war; our social life was nil.” They needed something to do with those weekend evenings that didn’t involve subway rides into the city. These were mostly middle-class, stay-at-home mothers; the game was often the highlight of their week. Edelman speaks about the memory of her mother, captured inside the mah-jongg set resting on her lap. She opens the case on camera, breathing in the “plastic and perfume and cigarettes” that she associated with the game as a little girl. Though my mother worked throughout my childhood, as did most of the women she played with, the game’s late hours — on a weekday, yet! — didn’t exhaust her. Instead, mah-jongg entertained and engaged its players, energizing them. For several hours, everything was suspended but the tinkling of the tiles and the call of the craks.
When my mother retired five years ago, the number of weekly mah-jongg games increased. Many an evening I would call her in Rancho Bernardo only to be stopped mid-sentence. “We’re just starting a game, Susie; I’ll call you when it’s over.” It always surprised me when the phone rang after 11:00 p.m. (this, from a woman who often went to bed at 8:30) and my wide-awake mother kept her promise.
It might have been the tiles that kept her up. In The Tiles That Bind a Chinese woman talks about the pressure points between the thumb and index finger — digits used to turn mahj tiles — and how, in Chinese medicine, they are thought to energize the brain. Another Chinese woman mentions that the sparrow, for which the game is named, is considered an intelligent bird, “and this is a game for intelligent people.” When Hope Edelman talks about memories of her mother, who died when Edelman was 14, she speculates on the dearth of outside interests for a wife and mother in the early ’60s. “I don’t think there were many stimulating challenges for women like my mother. This game might have been a substitute for something more intellectual or academic.” Edelman suggests that weekly mah-jongg games might have been her mother’s only social gathering that didn’t involve children.
But the children were watching and listening (and eating). Ask any Jewish man or woman, 25 to 65, about mah-jongg, and out pour the details of some stored-away memory, often fleshed out in five senses: The crashing of upended racks of tiles; the click-clacking of the polished ivory; the cool rectangles, smooth on one side, engraved on the other. The sound of female gossip and giggling, punctuated by bursts of “two crak,” “one bam,” “three dot.” The smell of coffee and cigarettes and perfume — in my case, Shalimar, Albert Nippon, Tigris, and that green-bottled Emeraude Mrs. Kaldor always wore. Next to each player’s rack of tiles: a plate of fruit, a napkin of cake crumbs, a small leather change purse whose contents of quarters and dimes, collected at evening’s end, totaled a paltry sum that mattered little when compared to what it lent.
“As a little girl my assignment was sticking the fancy toothpicks with the maraschino cherries into the pineapple chunks,” Randy recalls. Originally from Brooklyn, Randy, 50, lives in La Jolla now but used to live in Rancho Bernardo. “I started a game 20 years ago, when I was in my 30s. We shared everything in that game — our simchas [celebrations] and our sorrows. It was an anchor; when everything around was changing, this stayed the same.” The group played weekly, and though its members didn’t socialize outside of the game, they remained loyal to the group lo those many years. “When I moved to La Jolla, I knew that playing mahj would be a great way to meet new people.” When she didn’t find a game to join, Randy started one herself, by teaching. “They’re catching on and getting faster and faster,” she says of her students. “But it’s not easy: one gal used to come with a bottle of aspirin.” (Distressed by the difficulties of a new card’s hands, one woman in New York told National Mah Jongg League president Ruth Unger that if she were looking for frustration, she would have stayed home with her husband.)
Randy’s hope for mah-jongg’s future is tentative. “I keep saying to the women at my games, ‘We all have daughters; if we don’t teach our children, this game is going to die.’ I did teach it to my daughter, but it didn’t really click. Now she lives in New York, and when she comes home, sometimes she plays with us. I hope she picks it up.” I tell her to be patient; it could still happen.