“What’s the difference between Jewish and Chinese Mah Jong?” I once asked my mother. I couldn’t tell by her answer if the games were different or just her attitude towards Chinese and Jewish people.
“Entirely different kind of playing,” she said in her English explanation voice.
– Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989).
Until I played my first round of mah jong over Rosh Hashanah, the above quote from Amy Tan’s novel was my sum total knowledge about the game. However, my aunt is a dedicated player of the American (or Jewish) mah jong variety, which she plays every Saturday afternoon with a bunch of ladies in her neighborhood in a suburb of Washington, DC. Mom had also just started playing with a group in Kansas City. My grandmother and her sister had played years ago and my aunt had inherited Grandma Fanny’s mahj set.
Over Rosh Hashanah while visiting in DC, Mom & Auntie M. decided to teach me how to play mah jong. “It’s sort of like Rummikub,” Auntie M. explained, “but not.” Strangely, this explanation actually made quite a lot of sense to me.
Without going into too much detail, mah jong is a game played with tiles by 4 people around a card table. The tiles are divided into suits and numbers (like playing cards.) There are various combination of tiles (“hands”) that you create to win (yelling “Mah jong!”) In the Jewish version of the game, players are almost always women. Refreshments (“nosh”) are always served, and games are played around exchanges of local gossip. (Actually, paying attention to the tiles being played as well as following the flow of the gossip is a highly nuanced skill!)
There are several rounds of dealing and trading tiles to set up, then each player takes & discards a tile during her turn during the round of game play. The goal is to match tiles you have to one of the “hands” on the mah jong standard hand card, available from the National Mah Jong League & updated yearly. There are versions where you keep track of points, and bet money, but the Sabbath observance by many players in the Saturday afternoon games prohibits use of money or writing things down. Also, different Mah Jong groups develop their own idiosyncratic practices and rules.
So when Auntie M. and Mom taught me to play, there were only the three of us. We had an imaginary 4th person (“Mattie”) – which I figured was because she was only a place mat- and we played her tiles for her. I got my first mah jong (winning hand) after a little coaching and practice. We also ate almost an entire coffee cake.
Since returning to Kansas City, I’ve had the opportunity to join my Mom’s mahj ladies for Saturday afternoon games. For the first couple of times, I was the 5th player, so I was perfectly content to sit outside the game and observe. After a little coaxing, I usually would join in for a round or two. When there are 5 players, we rotate, the 5th lady (especially if she’s an experienced player) taking the role of “mahj coach” for some of the more befuddled. This past shabbat (saturday) marks my 5th time playing. I was particularly pleased with myself for making Mah jong on the first round (Flowers, Dragons and more Dragons, baby!) Luckily, my mom’s group is pretty laid back and tolerant of beginners. In me, I think they see themselves seeding “the next generation” of American Mah Jong players.
I can totally see hipsters getting into this. It’s fun, relatively cheap (except for the initial cost of a mahj set), and is an excellent way of building community. I think the ladies should also open it up to young men who want to learn to play – it’s the 21st century, guys can totally play mah jong if they want to! For me, it’s a fun way to spend some time with my mom and eat interesting snacks.
Tangents for this post:
How Mah Jong Became American and Jewish from Chicago Public Media
From “Sports & Judaism” topic at My Jewish Learning
New Generation of Mah Jong Players from Haaretz
History of Mah Jong in America from Stanford University
Learn MahJongg with Susie DVD (which was actually pretty helpful, too.)