Lil Matchan (in blue), writer Carol Novis’s mother, and friends ready for a game of Mah-jongg
In one of my earliest and fondest memories, I am a small child lying in bed listening to the comforting click of mah-jongg tiles in the living room, as my mother and her friends play, gossip and serve pastry and coffee at their weekly mah-jongg game. My sisters and I thought it hilarious that those old ladies (as they seemed to us then, although they were only in their 20s and 30s) referred to themselves as “the girls”. And although we mocked those evenings with the girls, we also implicitly recognized that they were an expression of warmth, friendship and community, as well as fun.
The girls (those who are alive at any rate, including my 90-year-old mother) are still playing mah-jongg in their Winnipeg retirement home. While that’s not really a surprise, I never could have predicted that so many years later I would also be enjoying a weekly game in Israel, as would my sister in Houston and friends in Canada and Australia. And so would many thousands of other Jewish women who have contributed to a revival of this most social of games around the world.
Mah-jongg originated in China where it is still popular today. It is played mostly by men, usually for high stakes. On a trip to China I saw people playing everywhere on tables set up in the streets, and I also visited a factory producing tables in which an ingenious built-in contraption shuffles the tiles automatically and then pushes the correct number up in front of each player. That’s how seriously it is taken!
It’s difficult to imagine that such an oriental game could become a hit with American Jewish ladies, but so it did. In the 1920s, Abercrombie & Fitch imported some games to the US, where they became so sought after that emissaries were sent to China to buy up every set they could find. The store sold 12,000 sets. The fad declined for a time, but picked up again in the 30s and 40s. Eventually, it became the game of choice for Jewish matrons, of all people.
Why? There are various theories. According to one explanation, the game was popularized by Jews who fled to Shanghai from Europe during the war and learned it there, bringing it to North America after the war. But the most probable explanation is that mah-jongg was encouraged by women in Jewish organizations such as synagogue sisterhoods, Hadassah and WIZO, who saw its potential as a fundraiser. Selling rule cards became a way to raise money for Jewish charities. Mah-jongg thus became a philanthropic vehicle, as well as a pleasurable game.
Moreover, mah-jongg, which is not as competitive or as challenging as bridge, but more sophisticated than rummy or canasta, is the ideal social game, which anyone can learn to play. It became the game of choice played in Jewish vacation communities such as those in the Catskills and Florida.
The game itself is not difficult, but it takes a little time to learn. It is played with 144 tiles of various denominations with strange names, such as krak, dot and bam, as well as four wind tiles - north, south, east and west - and three dragons. Every year, the National Mah-jongg League, founded by Jewish women in the 1930s, issues a card in which new combinations of tiles are listed. The aim is to pass around and pick up and discard tiles according to standard rules in order to achieve one of the combinations listed on the card, and win by calling out “mah-jongg.” There is skill involved, but also a lot of chance.
Significantly different today from its Chinese origins, so-called American Mah-jongg has standardized rules published by the National Mah-jongg League, which is said to have 350,000 members. An increasing number of players today are young – or relatively young. So popular is the game that a Google search reveals such items for sale as mah-jongg jewelry, refrigerator tiles with apropos sayings (“There is no crying in mah-jongg” and “I’ll stop playing when they pry the tiles from my cold fingers”), iPhone cases and even T-shirts for dogs. Isaac Mizrachi, whose mother played mah-jongg, has designed a dress with mah-jongg motifs.
My daughters don’t have the inclination or the leisure to play mah-jongg, but who knows? Someday their own children may lie in bed, listening to their mothers and their friends calling out “shalosh bamim”, “arba krakim” – “mah jongg!”
Comment from Helen Koven
I am inviting Mah Jongg players to join us at the VERA SALOMONS RESIDENCE for games to be played here (also beginners) at a suitable time to be decided on. Helen's email firstname.lastname@example.org