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Talking Tiles Through the Years

December 2, 2010 By:
Lisa Schiffman, JE Feature
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Taking time out for mah-jongg on vacation in the Catskills, circa 1960

 Men have their poker, their blackjack. Couples dally with bridge and pinochle. And women, well, for a long time now, women have made a little more noise with their game of choice.

They have mah-jongg.

"Mah-jongg is my passion," says Selma Abramowitz, 81, who looks forward to her twice-weekly mah-jongg games at the Klein JCC with other veteran players; she herself has been playing for more than 50 years.

Debbie Dunn, 59, who lives in Langhorne, concurs: "I could play every day."

"Mah-jongg provides us a chance to get together and talk," says Philadelphia-based instructor Pam Levi, 29.

After teaching a group of friends the game -- all Jewish professional women in their 20s and early 30s -- they meet regularly now, she says.

Although these women represent different generations, what they share is their love of an old-time game -- one that has enabled them to make new social connections and forge new friendships.

A great way to socialize and even fundraise, mah-jongg has long been a fixture of Jewish communal life. The game's resurgence in popularity has resulted in the clack of tiles, and sounds of conversation and laughter that can be heard in Jewish community centers, synagogues, and private homes in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. Those involved in the game say more and more people are expressing an interest in learning it, and new playing groups are being formed.

"There's more to it -- it's not just a game," says Sara Koval, 41, who lives in Cheltenham. "The feel of the tiles, the connections made with other people, the game's history -- generations have been playing mah-jongg."

"People become fanatical" about it, says Neilia David Makadok, a mah-jongg instructor in her early 60s from Newtown. "It pulls you in. It's mah-jongg night and that's it -- my family knows, 'Don't call me,' " she says students have told her.

Fascination with the game has fueled a demand for sets and accessories as well. The Wishlist gift boutique in Southampton, for example, offers an extensive selection of mah-jongg sets, as well as serving platters, chip 'n' dip bowls, spreaders, aprons, pot holders -- even a baby bib that says "Future Mah-Jongg Player."

"Over the years, these items have become an asset for our store," attests sales associate Minnie Schwartz.

And the trend has grown. Entrepreneurs Sharon Jacobson and Gillian Hatcher of Ocoee, Fla., have launched an online custom mah-jongg accessory and gifts company called www.SimplyMahj.com.

Jacobson, who has childhood memories of her mother playing while growing up in Atlanta, explains that after Hatcher made her a bracelet using plastic mah-jongg tiles, she realized the potential in creating a business related to the game.

Using both vintage and contemporary mah-jongg tiles, Hatcher has designed a line of handmade jewelry, key chains, bottle stoppers, writing instruments and glass serving pieces adorned with both vintage and contemporary tiles.

Response to the website's launch just a month ago has been phenomenal, says Jacobson: "It's not just your mother's and grandmother's game anymore."

A game of skill, strategy and luck that originated in China, mah-jongg means "sparrow" in Cantonese.

In American mah-jongg, which is the version played in the U.S. Jewish community, the object of the game -- played by four or five players using 152 tiles comprised of various "suits" -- is to assemble a winning "hand" of 14 tiles from among 50 possible combinations through a process of drawing and discarding tiles on an official board. The game can be played at different levels of difficulty.

"I find it very social, and it's challenging," says Ina Burwasser, 65, of Elkins Park, who runs a mah-jongg group at Congregation Adath Jeshurun. "I like trying to put a hand together and being with women of similar interests."

Along those lines, the 1997 documentary "Mah-Jongg: The Tiles That Bind" chronicles the game's impact on the lives of Asian and Jewish American women. According to filmmaker Bari Pearlman, the ritual of the weekly game, particularly among longtime groups, fosters strong bonding between members. Over time, she asserts, whether on child-rearing, personal issues or even illness, the group effectively becomes the core of "advice-givers on critical family matters."

"I have been playing with the same group of girls for 16, 17 years," Dunn says of the league she is a member of at Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown. "You get to know each other, each other's schticks."

During that time, members' children and grandchildren have grown. "It's nice to know that once a week, we will be meeting -- it's nice to be in each others' lives."

In effect, the group becomes a support network, "a place to share and know it won't go anywhere -- a safe, supportive environment," says David Makadok, who teaches the game at Bucks County Community College, at libraries and other venues, and hosts monthly mah-jongg nights.

A self-professed "mah-jongg matchmaker," she also helps people organize groups: "I meet students who tell me it has changed their lives."

Levi, the Philadelphia instructor, aspires to be the game's ambassador for a new generation of players. "At this point, I have taught well over 200 people under the age of 30 how to play."

An assistant camp director at Camp Canadensis in the Poconos, Levi recalls a high school senior she taught mah-jongg to last summer. The girl, Rebecca Jacobson, wound up loving it so much that after her first lesson, she requested a set to be sent to her as her graduation gift.

"She got a beautiful new set with personalized jokers that said 'Rebecca' on them," says Levi, and "we played with it for the rest of the summer."

'Project Mah-Jongg' on Exhibit in N.Y.

"Project Mah-Jongg," now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, is the first museum exhibit to explore the Jewish American connection to the game, says curator Melissa Martens.

It chronicles the game's history and traditions in Chinese and American Jewish culture, as well as its impact on American fashion and design through archival photographs, vintage mah-jongg sets, game scorecards, accessories, and an audio segment of people playing and reminiscing about the game.

Since its opening in May, Martens says the exhibit has gotten a huge response. "We've had calls and e-mails from people across the country who would like to play, see the exhibit or share their memories," she says. It has just been extended through February.

Mah-jongg's origins go back hundreds of years. While card and tile games similar to it were played by the Chinese aristocracy, Martens explains that "mah-jongg was a gradual folk adaptation of card games based on the "pai system"; these games used symbols from Chinese currency to denote value. Chinese dominoes were also popular in the mid-19th century; mah-jongg emerged from the popularity of cards and dominoes.

Joseph P. Babcock, the American representative for the Standard Oil Company in Suzhou, is credited with mah-jongg's introduction to America in the 1920s. Babcock created a rule book, added English numerals to the tiles, and aligned himself with the "Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America," which began importing sets.

He also patented the game's hyphenated spelling. Soon, companies like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley began mass-producing sets, and a "mah-jongg craze" swept the country between 1922 to 1925, explains Martens.

Yet even at the height of the first fad, commentators debated the game's image as a vice -- a gambling game, a time-waster and a potential vehicle for rebellious flapper behavior.

Mah-jongg became linked with American Jewish culture in 1937 with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League in New York. Founded by a group of German Jewish women, the league initiated an annual "Official Standard Hands and Rules" card offering a new assortment of winning hand combinations and point values, and added joker and flower tiles. Funds raised from sales of the league's annually issued cards were donated to Jewish charities.

The game was embraced by Eastern European Jewish women after World War II, who played it in their suburban homes, and on vacation in Catskills resorts and bungalow colonies; they'd take their set with them.

Factors responsible for the game's revival include women who have inherited a relative's vintage mah-jongg set, the game's retro appeal, and its portrayal in films like Driving Miss Daisy and The Joy Luck Club.

For a listing of film screenings and activities associated with the exhibit, call 646-437-4202 or go to: www.projectmahjongg.com.

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