It began with a small gathering of curious folks, and then the word spread. After a few years, the Bedford-based group totaled 220. The enthusiasts aren’t “ladies who lunch,” and they don’t “do coffee” unless their shared time includes four of them—and a few rounds of Mah-Jongg.
This 19th-century game is now bonding new and old friends together in our community. Primarily (but not exclusively) played by women, Mah-Jongg was popular in early 20th-century America among immigrants of various faiths and homelands who first learned of it from their Chinese immigrant neighbors.
Early names for the game included Chinese translations of “Beating the Sparrow” and “Sparrows,” as early players thought the sound of shuffling tiles resembled the squabbling of those small birds. Eventually, the game caught the eye of Joseph P. Babcock, an American businessman working in China in the 1920s. Babcock renamed the game “Mah-Jongg” (various spellings exist today) and patented and exported it to the west.
Mah-Jongg has returned to popularity in the last five to seven years, according to Rabbi Stacy Bergman. Her classes were the spark of inspiration for the Bedford crowd. And while the rabbi previously taught the game at Temple Shaaray Tefila, she now does so privately. A starting player usually takes three, two-hour sessions over the course of a month.
“Grandmothers passed the game on, and playing was about comradery, excitement, and women getting together and using their brains,” says Rabbi Bergman. Now in local living rooms, cafes, clubhouses, libraries, and health club lounges, Jewish and non-Jewish women are enjoying the hot trend along with a few snacks and, of course, a beverage or two.
A room of Mah-Jongg players feels like entertainment rather than a competition. “I like it better than bridge,” says Cynthia Mas, scrutinizing her tiles, perched on a plastic rack in front of her. Mas is an inspiring organizer—a connector of people—and a regular player who learned in Rabbi Bergman’s class. “It took about a year before most of us could comfortably add ‘cocktails and catching-up’ while we played,” she smiles. “Time has made us better at both.”
Each game lasts about 20 minutes and ends when the last tile in the center of the table is drawn. “It’s a pick-and-throw process as you build a hand. Winning involves some skill but there’s as much luck as chance involved,” says Kim Morris, who was the hostess of a recent game, featuring their teacher, Rabbi Bergman, as a special guest.
Played like gin rummy, Mah-Jongg uses rectangular white tiles instead of cards. “It’s impossible to cheat,” says Francine Walker from across the table. She discards a tile and calls out, “EAST!”
“CRACK,” says Morris.
“BAM,” says Mas.
Barely a breath passes as the words spin round and round the table. There’s an aesthetic to the symmetric tile stacks that shine like rows of white teeth. A click-clack of tiles being mixed and discarded combines with an aroma of steaming mugs of tea that sit at the elbow of each player.
Jean Hardy-Sloan from Pound Ridge, one of the founding members of the extensive Bedford group, has been playing Mah-Jongg for years. “It took me three years to convince Cynthia Mas to take lessons,” she laughs, “and now she’s obsessed.”
Hardy-Sloan’s personal obsession is collecting beautiful and often antique Mah-Jongg sets. She has 32 of them. “I got hooked on the tiles,” she says. “Some are bone and bamboo and beautifully painted. Others are made from bakelite. They can be carved or mass-produced, and the cases can be ornamented with jade and carvings.” She enjoys watching eBay and Etsy for odd tiles she might need to complete or rehab an older set. And it isn’t just the older sets that are treasured. A new Trach/Bach set by Crisloid will set you back $1,000, and with the high demand, it will take months to receive, according to the gaming supplier’s website.
Back at Kim Morris’s house, the clock ticks to the hour. Popcorn bowls and empty mugs are replaced by the sound of a cork. “Who would like some wine?” Morris asks against the sound of the tiles being dumped in the center of the card table. She distributes filled goblets and returns to her chair for another round. Win or lose, there is no indication that this afternoon is drawing to a close any time soon.