Four women sit around a table, each with a card of various numbers and colors, arranged like a secret code.
Tiles are exchanged like a perfectly choreographed dance: right, across, left, then left, across, right. Tossing tiles into the middle of the table, the players call out mysterious names—”Four Crak! Three Bam! Eight Dot!”—until the winner finally shouts “Mah-jongg!”
To the uninitiated, the process is foreign. To those familiar with the game, this is just a typical evening with the girls, evenings that have been happening in America for nearly 100 years.
There’s no question that scores of Jewish women have played mah-jongg, a betting game that requires matching domino-like tiles into rummy-like patterns. From the tenements of New York City to the bungalows of the Catskills and the vast American suburbs, Jewish women have kept alive a game that otherwise fell out of fashion in the 1920s.
And yet the Jewish mah-jongg connection is hard to explain. As one Internet writer asked: “How on earth did a 19th century Chinese parlor game come to be a favorite pastime for middle-aged Jewish women?”
The Rise and Fall of Mah-jongg
Mah-jongg’s precursors may be centuries old, but the game most Americans know dates back only about 150 years. Around 1846, a servant of the Chinese emperor combined the rules of popular card games of the time, and replaced cards with tiles to create mah-jongg. The name itself means sparrows—an allusion to the pictures of birds often engraved on the tiles.
The advent of mah-jongg coincided with China’s opening to foreign traders, after the First Opium War (1837-1842). One American businessman, Joseph Babcock, traveled to China on behalf of the Standard Oil Company in 1912 and brought the game back to America. He changed the numbers on the tiles to numerals with which Americans are familiar (1, 2, 3, etc.) and by 1920, Abercrombie and Fitch, then a sporting and excursion goods store, was the first place to sell mah-jongg in America.
Throughout the 1920s, the game was a popular craze. Over time, to make the game more difficult and exciting, groups made up their own “table rules.” As these homemade regulations became more complex, players eventually became turned off by the game and the challenge of ever-changing rules. By the end of the decade, the mah-jongg fad had died.
A Jewish Trend
But Jews, particularly Jewish women, did not let go of the game.
In 1937, a group of Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL), which to this day strives to maintain consistency in the game. Each year the League issues a card listing
winning combinations of tiles (which change every year) and standard regulations. This stability helped the game to survive. But Jewish involvement in the League doesn’t fully explain the Jewish mah-jongg phenomenon.
According to Anita Luu and Christi Cavallero’s book, Mah-jongg: From Shanghai to Miami Beach, “Throughout World War II the game continued to be played among Jewish women’s circles as it increased in popularity and became more prevalent in their lives.” While their men were off at war, Luu and Cavallero explain, women found mah-jongg to be an inexpensive form of communal entertainment. In the urban setting of New York, the game quickly spread from friend to friend, mother to daughter.
A completely different theory comes from Ruth Unger, president of NMJL. She believes that the game was perpetuated in part because it is a philanthropic money-making endeavor for Jewish organizations, notably synagogue sisterhoods and Hadassah chapters. These groups sell mah-jongg rule cards and receive donations from the League. In order to sell enough cards, they have had to keep people interested in playing the game, so they continue to teach mah-jongg to their members.
Mah-jongg remains popular with local synagogue sisterhoods, including at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville and Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, where, on Feb. 8, dozens of people competed in the synagogue’s annual mah-jongg tournament (first prize: $75). Several of the competitors were young professionals, including Rockville native Elyse Grossman, who, along with her sister, started playing in her 20s. “It’s fun; it keeps you thinking. It’s a mix of both strategy and luck.
“Just when you think you’re getting good, they change the card and all the hands change. So it keeps you on your toes.”
Grossman’s mother, Susan, who also competed in the Beth El tourney, said she was surprised when her daughter got involved with mah-jongg. But she enjoys how the game has helped the three of them to bond. Like daughter Elyse, she appreciates the skill involved. “I don’t like games of pure chance,” she stressed, “It seems to me that Candy Crush must be the stupidest thing you can play.”
—JTA News and Features
Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey W. Melada contributed to this article.