Mah-Jongg

Jewish women have kept the game alive in North America.

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Bungalow Memories

mah jongg tiles

Perhaps the most important factor in mah-jongg's survival is the role it played in the bungalow colonies, popular Jewish vacation sites in the mid-20th century. In Borscht Belt Bungalows: Memories of Catskill Summers, Irwin Richman describes the Jewish vacation culture there: "By the middle of the century, mah-jongg had spread from the city to the suburbs and the vacation resorts, it went along with the Jews. The click, click of tiles and phrases like 'five bam' and 'two crak' filled the air many an afternoon at the large colonies."

New City, New York resident Joan Cooper fondly recalls spending childhood summers at these colonies, where her mother and friends would play mah-jongg every weekday, until Friday afternoon, when husbands and fathers drove up from New York City.

"The women would sit with big hats covering their face and the straps untied on their bathing suits, so they didn't get any tan lines," says Cooper. "The best time to ask something from Mom was during her games. She'd always give me a little money just to make me go away."

Mothers, Daughters, Friends

Those litte kids watching the games eventually grew up to become the next generaton of mah-jongg players. Yet many of them didn't think they'd follow in their mothers' footsteps. When Cooper was asked who taught her to play mah-jongg, she interupted her weekly game to call her sister, who, of course, was at her own mah-jongg game. They both weren't certain, but assumed they learned from their mother. Cooper says emphatically, "We never wanted to be those old farts playing mah-jongg. Look at us now."

Ruth Unger seems to agree: 'Women didn't want to play a game they thought was a frivolous thing their mothers played. They wanted to do great things with their lives. I don't care who you are, or where you're from, nobody wants to be like their mothers. However, the game is persistent and seductive, and poetic justice is usually served when the daughter who has strayed ends up liking it far more than her mother ever did." (From Shanghai to Miami Beach)

As newer generations take up the game, they learn that many true friendships can develop from it. And that's not frivolous at all.

In the documentary Mah-Jongg: The Tiles that Bind, seasoned players say that mah-jongg is their life. As women play for years and decades with the same people, they share life events--marriage and divorce, the birth of children and then grandchildren, work and retirement.

It's even said that when the last woman of a mah-jongg groups dies, it's her job to "bring" the mah-jongg set with her to the World to Come.

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Meredith Lewis

Meredith Lewis is the Senior Editor at MyJewishLearning.com.