I was looking for a way to connect with my new upstate New York community, to meet people, make new friends. I had played the ancient game of mah-jongg many years ago in Westchester, where I raised my family for 25 years, but really didn’t have the time to hone my skills. Dinner needed to be cooked, laundry needed to be done, homework needed supervision, the dog needed to be walked! My husband, while helpful, is not me. I am a controlling individual, so have no one to blame but myself for always being pressed for time. Enter retirement!
Mah-jongg dates back from the Quing Dynasty, an ancient Chinese game of tiles being made into suits of flowers, dragons, winds, craks, and bams (short for bamboo) Even suits, odd combinations, singles and pairs, consecutive runs, etc. One lives and breathes the Official Standard Hands And Rules card, which you are allowed to keep in front of you while playing ( $9 sold by the synagogue with proceeds often going to worthy Jewish causes such as Hadassah) issued by the National Mah Jongg League, Inc now in it’s 81st year.
The game was brought to American shores in the early 1920’s. The theory is that with the advent of immigrants coming to this country, it was a way of tying folks together.
Much like Chinese food, which we all know Jews eat on Christmas Day, the game became synonymous with this cultural group of middle aged women. In the 1950’s when bungalow colonies were popular as summer vacationing destinations, ladies sat around the pool and played in groups during the week, waiting for their husbands to come up on weekends from the hot city. My own family did this (not that my mother played mah-jongg-she wouldn’t dream of it!) while my father toiled in Harlem running a drug store with his brother.
Every Monday, since I returned from winter in Mexico, I drive to Temple Israel in Catskill, NY (where else?!) to sit with a group of women, some older than me, some younger, make that none younger! I may not have much in common with them, but we all share our fascination with this ancient, somewhat exotic game of strategy, focus, tactics, and a bit of luck! Getting good tiles from the onset doesn’t hurt. There is casual banter among the players and one must come with $5 in quarters for the betting (big stakes poker this is not!) plus $3 as a contribution to the snacks that are set out on a table every week. Cake from someone’s birthday the previous weekend, cookies, trail mix, brownies, etc. Jewish women like a nosh!
I am getting to know people from week to week and I like the challenge of the game, in addition to the fact that we are mostly of the same faith so share a certain simpatico. We play from 12-4 on Mondays with a break for lunch and I am sitting at the beginner’s table for now. The women are patient and someone comes over to look at my hand pointing out possible combinations, since I am still a newbie. There is something captivating about the click clacking of the tiles.
Amy Tan wrote in “The Joy Luck Club”, of her mother asking the question, ‘What’s the difference between Jewish and Chinese mah-jongg?” Her mother replies, “Entirely different kind of playing…Jewish mah-jongg they watch only for their own tile, play only with their eyes.”
It’s even said when the last member of a mah-jongg group dies, it’s her job to bring the mah-jongg set with her to the world to come.” Now, that’s dedication!
If you think this game will make you smile, here’s how to get started – thanks to our friends at Amazon! Just click the image below.
. What is that you love to do? What haven’t you had the time for during all those many years raising a family? Is it gardening, bridge, a book club, ceramics, painting? Maybe, it’s mah-jongg. Follow your passion. Now is the time! Maybe, you’ll make a new friend or two.
. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Pick up a tennis racket, even if you’ve never played. Pickle ball, which Barclay and I are both learning. Who cares if you look silly or make a mistake! You have nothing to prove. You’ve lived a successful life and can do whatever makes you smile. 🙂
Enjoy the ride
xox Barclay & Joy