By Ellen Simon Pifer,
What do Chinese men in Shanghai and dozens of women at the Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos have in common? You might guess a heartfelt love for dim sum, but it goes beyond that.
In early December, 63 women (and one intrepid man) packed into the JCC with one thing in mind–an ancient game Chinese men have been playing for generations: mah jongg.
The Chinese invented mah jongg in 1847. The game, which is named for the Chinese word meaning “sparrow,” is played using domino-like tiles on a rack. It’s similar to the card game gin and requires a good deal of strategic thinking as players try to assemble a winning hand of tiles in specific patterns. Mix in a bit of financial risk and a touch of luck, and you have the makings of a very addictive game.
“We love it,” says Doris Katz while adjusting her mah jongg tile necklace and matching bracelet. Katz, originally from Brooklyn and now living in Saratoga, has played mah jongg for more than 50 years. Today, she teaches the game, with friend Karen Guggenheim. The two have taught mah jongg at the JCC for two years and were thrilled to coordinate the center’s second annual mah jongg tournament.
Businessman Joseph Babcock, who discovered the game while traveling through China in 1912, brought mah jongg to the United States. Once in the states, the game underwent a few changes and American mah jongg was born. Throughout the 1920s, the game became a popular craze and rules were codified with the establishment of The National Mah Jongg League.
No one really knows for certain how mah jongg became uniquely Jewish, though there are many theories. But few would deny that what bocce is to Italian men, mah jongg is to Jewish women.
“I have a theory that the Jewish women living on the lower East Side of New York would stroll their babies through nearby Chinatown and see their neighbors playing,” says Katz. “Maybe that’s how it caught on in the Jewish community.”
However it happened, there is no doubting that mah jongg took root in the Jewish community. “It definitely became a Jewish woman’s game,” says Katz. “It was played in the Catskills and in the cities and on the beaches.”
“I have clear memories as a child of hearing my mother and grandmother play,” says Hayley Charnow, one of the younger players in the tournament. “They would sit in the living room, and I would hear the clickety-click of the tiles.”
It’s a sweet memory for Charnow, who was excited to be at the JCC to play in her first mah jongg tournament. The tournament, which was open to “newbies and mavens” alike, was established to bring people in the community together.
“This is a social event more than a fundraiser,” says Arielle Hendel, chief development officer for the Jewish Federation, which sponsored the event. “We want people to understand who we are and become familiar with our campus and all that we offer.”
In addition to a fitness center, preschool and educational programming, the JCC now offers mah jongg tables for public use in its lobby. Pick-up games take place every Wednesday night and anyone can pop in to play a hand or two.
While the mah jongg tournament held at the JCC was not primarily a fundraiser, mah jongg and money enjoy a long history together. Gambling was an integral part of the original game played in China and it has retained the element of financial risk, though in American mah jongg the stakes are generally low.
“We could literally play all night for $5,” says Marcia Simon, who picked up the game after moving from New York to Florida. “That’s a lot of time for very little money. It’s definitely not about the money for me and my friends,” she says. “It’s about strategy and socializing.”
While some players may agree to take gambling completely out of the game, in Las Vegas tournaments some players play for up to 10 times the typical 25-cent ante.
“It really depends on the people playing,” adds Katz. “Some people take it very seriously, and other people get together to talk and take the game less seriously. It really depends on the people who are playing.”
“I’m here in training for a tournament in Florida,” adds Ron Schilling, an avid game player whose job as a teacher of strategic thinking at Stanford University may offer him an advantage at mah jongg. Schilling was the only man competing in the JCC tournament, though he says several of his friends play the game. “Next time I’ll have more men here with me,” he said. “Guaranteed.”
While mah jongg hasn’t changed much since the ’20s, it has gained wider appeal in recent years.
“For years young women have always fought against learning because their mothers played and we naturally don’t want to end up like our mothers,” Guggenheim says with a chuckle. It’s also a game that requires free time that younger women with children don’t always have, but the typical player may be changing.
“When we go to Las Vegas to play, we now see a lot more younger people playing,” says Katz. “They are younger, there are more men, and they aren’t all Jewish.”
“It’s very addictive and it’s very social,” says Guggenheim. “And that appeals to all kinds of people.” In fact, many mah jongg groups stay together for years and go through lifecycles together: births, the preschool years, bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. “At the start of each hand, when players are exchanging tiles, or even in between hands, there is time for chit chat.”
Perhaps mah jongg’s greatest power is its ability to bring people together. It’s done that for more than 100 years and is now working its magic here in Los Gatos.
An intermediate mah jongg class will meet Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning Jan. 12 at the Addison-Penzak JCC Levy Family Campus, 14855 Oka Road in Los Gatos. For more information, call 408.357.7492.