“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.