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Mah Jongg, once a favorite of Jewish matriarchs, making a comeback

Mah Jongg nights at the JCC of Central Jersey in Scotch Plains draw a large crowd of players. Photos courtesy JCC of Central Jersey
Mah Jongg nights at the JCC of Central Jersey in Scotch Plains draw a large crowd of players. Photos courtesy JCC of Central Jersey

Having skipped a generation, the perennial tile-based game traditionally played, often on a weekly basis, by Jewish mothers and grandmothers is staging a comeback.

Mah Jongg, a rummy-style game, usually played between four competitors and with 144 tiles — the American version including a Joker —is drawing a new group of diverse players. The preponderance of Jewish players is still there, but not to the extent it was in your bubbe’s era.

“As far as our numbers being up, I do think so,” said Larry Unger, president of the National Mah Jongg League, which is based in New York City and has some 350,000 members. “People are rediscovering our game and enjoying it. They are seeing they have a chance to get together, socialize, and have a good time — Jewish or not.”

Karen Sanders, a resident of Westfield, is the arts and education director at the JCC of Central Jersey in Scotch Plains — which will host a major Mah Jongg Tournament Sunday, Oct. 27 — agrees with Unger.

“More people are interested in playing,” said Sanders. “I like it.”

Her mother wasn’t a player, and Sanders herself came to the game later in life; now 54, she has played since her mid-40s. Her involvement has evolved into a weekly gathering with friends.

“I really was not exposed to the game when I was young,” she said. “Now, for our group, it’s a chance to get together and chat about everything. In the beginning, we’d chat a lot, and the game would take an hour. Now we play a serious game, and we’re done in 10-15 minutes.”

For a little added incentive, players may end the evening with a little extra cash —the emphasis on “little.”

“I won $3.70 last week,” she said with a chuckle.

Sanders is looking to pass her enjoyment of Mah Jongg on to her 23-year-old son.

“I put all the tiles on the kitchen table for my son, explained the rules, and asked if he was ready to play,” she said. “It was a funny family moment.”

Interest in the game has grown to the point, Sanders said, that some Mah Jongg groups have Facebook pages that feature discussions on many topics. The social media aspect also represents how close some of these groups have grown after becoming committed players.

The cards and tiles — some say “Mazel Tov” — are assembled and ready for play.

The JCC of Central Jersey has one of the most extensive Mah Jongg programs of any facility in the area. Sanders said that while there are plenty of Jewish players coming to the campus to build Mah Jongg walls and gather pongs and chows in their competitive drive, non-Jews are also joining the tables.

“Many of our events are open to the general community,” said Sanders. “Our classes, which start in September, are already filling up.”

Sanders, working with Randi Zucker, JCC education, arts, and Jewish programs director, started the Mah Jongg program about four years ago, chiefly as a teaching and learning effort. “For two or three years, we had great success with people getting used to the game and enjoying it,” said Sanders. “We decided to take it up a notch, and now we are looking forward to hosting our first tournament.

“The satisfaction is that we started with nothing and now we really have something.”

Mah Jongg originated in China, evolving from card games, with early versions in play about 150 years ago. It was popularized in the United States in 1920 by Joseph Park Babcock, a Standard Oil executive who was exposed to the game while in Soochow, China. He simplified what he experienced, trademarked the name Mah Jongg, and developed the American version. He also published a set of rules. The National Mah Jongg League, which was established in 1937, standardized the rules of play.

Each year the league changes hands and cards, in an attempt to add excitement to the game.

Unger pointed out one unusual aspect of the game. “Most of the players in the United States are female, while most of the players internationally are male.” And, referring to the still-noteworthy preponderance of Jews among Mah Jongg aficionados, he said, “What is also interesting is how the Jewish population has dispersed all over the country. We see tournaments in places like Texas and Arizona.”

The JCC event will be organized by Joanne Bourne of Four Seasons Mah Jongg Tournaments in Lakewood, who is involved with several such major events annually.

“We wanted a professional like Joanne to run the tournament,” said Sanders, who said the JCC is expecting 90-100 participants. “We know everything will be professional. We’ll have six rounds of play, breakfast, lunch, snacks.

“We’re really excited about this.”

jweisberger@njjewishnews.com

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