For years, the clicking of the colorful tiles taunted Donna Beth Joy Shapiro. She wanted to learn the game, but she couldn’t find anyone to teach her.
“It was the most mysterious thing my mother did,” said Shapiro of her mother’s regular mah jongg games.
Finally, Shapiro attended an instructional event hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland last month as part of its Late Night on Lloyd program.
“It just seemed like something a member of the tribe should know how to do,” said Shapiro. As a former antique dealer, she had collected a lot of mah jongg-themed goods over the years — even a wooden set, although the sound of the wooden tiles doesn’t quite satisfy her.
“I love the sound of the clicks,” she said. “It’s about the sound.”
Whether they were introduced to the game by their aunt, mother, grandmother or someone else, for many Jews, mah jongg was a part of family life growing up.
“People speak of the ‘ancient game of mah jongg,’ ” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the JMM, whose mah jongg exhibit, Project Mah Jongg, opened March 30, “but there’s no such thing.”
Rather, said Pinkert, the origins of the modern version of the game date back to the mid-19th century, when tiles began being used in place of card strips. In the early 1920s, American businessman Joseph Babcock took a liking to the game while living overseas and began importing sets to the United States.
“It’s like the Beatles coming to New York,” described Pinkert of the way the game took the country by storm. Just as everything “mod” was in while he was growing up, “everything that was of Oriental character [became] popular” in the 1920s flapper culture.
Young people looking to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation were lured by the exotic style and games of Eastern culture. From mah jongg-themed clothing sketches by modern fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, to mah jongg dolls, a lot of the museum’s exhibit, which ends June 29, explores the game’s effects on popular culture.
“It [became] such a fad that it [affected] everything around it,” said Pinkert, noting that The Saturday Evening Post even featured an illustration of a flapper playing mah jongg on its Jan. 5, 1924, cover.
By the end of the ’20s, the craze had largely died out. But when the Great Depression hit and Jewish charities were looking for creative ways to raise money, the game made a comeback as a fun way to “go retro,” said Pinkert.
In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was formed. The initial meeting was attended by some 200 ladies, said Pinkert, most of whom were Jewish.
“Now it becomes Jewish culture,” he said.
The National Mah Jongg League established a standard set of rules for American players to follow. Unlike Chinese mah jongg, the mah jongg played by American women of the 1930s involved score calculator cards and multiple winning hands.
By the 1940s, women had begun to rely on mah jongg as a part of regular life.
“In the ’40s, with men away at war, mah jongg became part of the way women kept their social sphere alive,” said Pinkert.
The game quickly became an integral part of “the good life” for American Jewish women, he detailed. Vacations to the Catskills and Miami began to include hours spent playing with the tiles.
Project Mah Jongg originated in New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and illustrates not only the game’s history, but also its role in the community.
“What began as a Chinese game is now part of the Jewish American narrative,” said Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, director of collections and exhibitions at the New York museum and curator of the traveling exhibit.
Designed by Pentagram Design, it takes the viewer through a chronological journey through the life of the game, from China to America. Complete with audio stations where viewers can listen to interviews with mah jongg players and the clicking of mah jongg tiles, Project Mah Jongg allows the viewer to step into a larger-than-life game. The centerpiece of the design is a table set for people to play on, surrounded by large tile-shaped frames filled with memorabilia and game pieces. Along the outside of the display are cultural items related to the game, such as fashion designs and vacation photos. At the apex of the display, tying everything together, is a large Star of David.
For Pinkert, the exhibit brings him back to his childhood.
“I grew up in the next room listening to the clatter of mah jongg tiles,” he said of his mother’s regular game nights.
Lois Madow is president and CEO of the Baltimore-based American Mah-Jongg Association. In addition to providing access to lessons and tournaments, the organization also hosts one or two two-week-long tournaments at sea each year.
“The game is very popular in Baltimore,” Madow said in an email sent during her latest mah jongg cruise, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Barcelona. “Just go to almost any restaurant in Pikesville and you will see people playing. Of course, a lot of people play in their home [as well].”
With 3,000 people on the group’s mailing list, the American Mah-Jongg Association is easily one of the biggest names in Western mah jongg. In addition to event sign-ups and sets for purchase, the group’s website also features mah jongg-themed bags, jewelry, license plates, clothing and other items for sale.
Long associated with older women, the game is seeing a bit of a resurgence among younger generations, what Pinkert described as “nostalgia for a game that entered Jewish life as nostalgia.”
In Brooklyn, the game is gaining a foothold in the hipster crowd. Last week, the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club (not your grandmother’s shuffleboard — think food trucks, drinks served in mason jars and Converse sneakers) announced it would be launching 6 p.m. to midnight Monday Night MahJong.
In Baltimore, the newest convert is 9-year-old Bellina Sargo, who attended the Jewish Museum’s event with her dad, Rich Sargo.
“I played on the computer before, so I thought I was going to come down here and dominate,” said Rich Sargo. “I could not have been more wrong.”
Bellina, however, was enjoying dominating the table, even helping other players learn the basics.
Though she still prefers the computer version of the game, when asked whether she thinks the real game is easy, Bellina replied, “A little bit.”
Newcomer Fred Shoken disagreed.
“See? I’ve got a nice straight here,” he said, pointing to his tiles in exasperation. Much to his despair, in mah jongg, there are no straights.
One table over, Cheryl Gottlieb was playing with mah jongg newcomer Susan Jones and experienced sisters Marlene Pachino and Edie Shlian, who began playing in their 20s with friends and neighbors, though neither can quite remember how they initially learned.
Gottlieb, who attended the event to get some playing time in, began playing with her mother when she was just 14 years old.
After undergoing major surgery in eighth grade, “I was watching too much TV and she wanted me to start using brain cells,” said Gottlieb, now 29 years old. “I don’t think I was ever in the typical age range.”
For Shlian and Pachino, the game was an escape from day-to-day life.
“You’re so busy talking, sometimes you lose track,” said Shlian.
“The best part was having little chips and dip and all that food,” recalled Pachino of the years when she and friends used to get together to play on a near-weekly basis. “It was more of a social event.”
For the women of the East Columbia 50+ Senior Center, the game is far more competitive.
“Even though it’s a drop-in, you have to be good,” said Adrienne Gordon of the twice-weekly four-hour-long games. “I have a hard time playing with a beginner.”
Most of the women at the center have been playing since they were children.
“I don’t remember ever learning,” said Elaine Rogers. “I think I was born playing.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, she said, all the women in her neighborhood played mah jongg and the men played pinochle.
Through years of playing, the women have seen some changes to their favorite game.
“Years ago, it was only Jewish women [who played],” said Lila Letow. “Now it’s not.”
Out of the four games a week Rogers plays in, she said she is the only Jew in two. But others have noticed a new interest in the game among the younger generations.
“I’ve been wanting to teach my girls for years and they’re not interested” said Letow, echoing a sentiment shared by more than one of her mah jongg partners.
Soon, though, she could have some new competition in the form of her granddaughter and her husband, who have both asked her to teach them to play — that is, if they can play on her level.
Heather Norris is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, the sister publication of Washington Jewish Week.