Once upon a tile

Once upon a tile

Mah jongg draws a new generation of players and mavens

Erica Needle, second from left, president of the Scotch Plains JCC, teaches an afternoon mah jongg class with, from left, Debbi Judd, Paula Freizer, Sebley Hausler, Alana Egenberg, and Toby Hirschfeld.
Erica Needle, second from left, president of the Scotch Plains JCC, teaches an afternoon mah jongg class with, from left, Debbi Judd, Paula Freizer, Sebley Hausler, Alana Egenberg, and Toby Hirschfeld.

Those who associate the click-clack of mah jongg tiles with their mothers — or grandmothers — and think of it as a pastime from the past might be taken aback to know the game is still going strong and drawing new players.

In a recent CBS Morning News segment on the game titled “Mah Jongg Madness,” one woman told the interviewer there’s something “sort of sexy” about playing the rummy-like game of Chinese origin. The piece showed more than 300 people — most of them women of a certain age, but with younger women and some men also represented — crying “Crack!” and “Bam!” at a major Las Vegas tournament. 

Randolph resident and mah jongg maven Karen Gooen told NJ Jewish News, “Many people play for the pleasure of socializing. But they also play for the pleasure of exercising their minds.” 

While much of the game is luck, she pointed out, there is plenty of room for skill, memory, tactical thinking, and competitive spirit — benign in some, outright ruthless in others.

Gooen was younger than most of the players around her when she took up mah jongg in 2003, starting with lessons offered by JCC MetroWest at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. She was also pretty bad at it. Now closer in age to the other players, she’s a whole lot better at the game. 

She teaches mah jongg, runs tournaments at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, and has just come out with a book about the game, Searching for Bubbe Fischer. It’s a meticulously detailed how-to and, in part, a memoir. 

“By trading tiles, and then picking and throwing away others, one transforms a chaotic hand into something that makes perfect sense,” Gooen writes. “It’s like turning flax into gold.”

The pleasures and perils of playing mah jongg are entwined, Gooen warns. Take snacking, for example — an essential part of the game. While admitting the calories can add up, Gooen is practical about it: She recommends serving bite-size treats that won’t leave fingers greasy. The serious eating can come during breaks, or when play ends.

Gooen also tackles the challenge of finding a socially compatible group of people who match your level. That can be tough. Candy Friedman, who teaches mah jongg for a number of organizations in Monmouth County, said that was one of the reasons she decided to teach a five-week course a couple of years back, as a fund-raiser for Ocean Township Hadassah. More than 40 women showed up. Nine of them continue to play together, and the group still meets every Wednesday evening at someone’s home.

Jewish women were pioneers in standardizing the game in the 1920s, writing rulebooks and even becoming authorities of the game, according to a travelling exhibit, “Project Mah Jongg,” that originated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. 

The National Mah Jongg League claims 350,000 members, most of them thought to be Jewish women. You join by paying $8 for a card mailed out every January that specifies that year’s winning hands, complicated combinations of tiles that change from year to year. 

The mah jongg revival was said to have started around 2001, but gained momentum among younger players in the middle of the last decade. 

Nostalgia is a big draw. “Every time I mix the tiles I recall my youth when my mom played,” said Linda Geltzeiler, a member of that Ocean Township nine-some. “My mom is thrilled that I now use her mah jongg set. My grandmother played, too. When I play I feel my mother all around me. It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Stacy Kless, another member, said, “When mom had the game at her house, I remember hearing the sound of the tiles, the chatter and laughter and the nibbling on little noshy things. Their group went through much of what life throws your way, together…all over a simple weekly game.”

A number of women said they decided to take lessons because their kids are older and they have the time to commit to a regular game. That is a familiar theme among players — though some start earlier, as a break from mothering.

That has proved true at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains. The president, Erica Needle, said, “The cultural arts director and the director of our senior programs were getting a lot of inquiries about mah jongg, and they wanted to start a class.” Needle herself has been playing for 17 years, and she volunteered to teach, along with fellow member Sebley Hausler.

“One game developed with a group of younger moms with children in the JCC preschool,” Needle said. “They’re all friends and they decided to do this together.” An older group formed, too, of women who didn’t necessarily know each other, and they have continued to meet and play.

“I feel like a proud mother,” Needle said. “I turned them on to something that they are taking off with.”

As with so many other things, the choices have multiplied. You can still get the old, vintage sets, but new ones come in all colors and designs. According to Lois Madow, who is president and founder of the American Mah-Jongg Association, some women have four or five sets. “People get sets to match the decor of their houses,” she told NJJN.

Madow, who teaches and organizes mah jongg cruises and tournaments, earlier this year went with 40 other players on a 16-day cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Barcelona, Spain, apparently with no shortage of eager participants — all equipped with their own sets. For all the design changes, they still come in neat carrying cases, suitable for players on the go.

If you are interested in learning how to play or in teaching mah jongg, or just would like more information about the game, contact the American Mah-Jongg Association at amja.net or the National Mah Jongg League at nationalmahjonggleague.org. The Mahjongmaven.com site lists private teachers in every state. 

In addition to Jewish community centers, classes might also be found at synagogues, local libraries, and — as in Ocean Township — at local Hadassah chapters.

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