A Mahjong Renaissance Among Jewish American Women

The tile game, imported to the U.S. from China in 1920, has become iconically Jewish and is attracting a new generation of players.

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When Elissa Meth Kestin’s grandmother had to move away from the community she had lived in for decades, leaving behind close friends and her longstanding game of Mahjong, the younger woman decided to learn to play the game properly, so she could play with her grandmother to cheer her up.

After all, Meth Kestin had fond memories of listening to the laughter, kibbitzing and clacking tiles of her mother’s games, played poolside while Meth Kestin and her friends swam, and in her mother’s friends’ living rooms, where they played year-round.

Wanting to learn the game properly and needing people to play with, Meth Kestin began teaching her friends, most of whom were, like her at the time, single and living in Manhattan. “I got a group of friends together, we sat with a rule book and figured out how to play. People heard about this, and said ‘I have a Mahjong set that was my grandmother’s, can you teach me?’ “ Meth Kestin says. “I taught a bunch of people in my living room and had two or three regular games going.” So many people asked her to teach them that she approached Makor, which was then a Jewish center for young adults in Manhattan, and asked if she could offer a class.

“They thought no-one would sign up. It sold out the first time. They were shocked, but offered it again. It sold out again and had a waiting list every time.” In all, she taught a few hundred people — many of them in their 20s — at Makor and later at the 92nd Street Y and area synagogues.

Meth Kestin and those she taught a decade ago were in the vanguard of renewed interest in Mahjong that has only continued to grow, say experts.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans — many of them Jews — today play the tile game, which was imported to the United States from China in 1920, said Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, director of collections and exhibits at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She curated an exhibit on the game at the museum in 2010 and 2011, which since then has been on display at Jewish museums across the country. Currently showing at the Breman Jewish Art Museum in Atlanta, it will next go to museums in Baltimore and San Francisco.The number of people playing Mahjong “is trending up,” Martens Yaverbaum said.

“There’s a little bit of a mah-jongg renaissance happening now,” Annelise Heinz told Haaretz. Heinz is a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, whose dissertation, “Mahjong: Race, Gender and the Transnational Politics of Culture,” is devoted to examining the enduring popularity of the game among American Jewish women. It is, said Meth Kestin, “considered hip and cool.”

The game is played with tiles bearing Chinese characters, flowers and images of bamboo, and has inspired a veritable cottage industry of Mahjong-themed tchotchkes, from blinged-out personalized tile bags to tile-themed jewelry and tableware. While most games still take place around private dining room tables, there are tournaments and even a Mahjong-themed cruise.

The game first caught on at a time when all things “Oriental” were considered exotic and was adapted with slightly different rules by the mid-1930s, with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League. While the national fad faded nationally in America, it stayed popular with Jewish women, who found in it social cohesion (the game is played by four people at a time) and a way to turn their pursuit into philanthropy, by donating the small sums won in each game.A Mahjong table was set up in the middle of the recent Museum of Jewish Heritage exhibit. “Ladies would come in groups of four and sit together and sometimes play in the gallery for hours,” said Martens Yaverbaum. “Sometimes Chinese visitors would come, too. I can’t think of anything else that is transnational in that way.”

Membership in the National Mahjong League, which is based in New York, had risen to about 400,000 people as of 2010, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Ruth Unger, the league’s president, said in the article that the game’s nadir was in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when membership dropped to 100,000.

The League sells the cards that display the winning tile combinations in American Mahjong, which change each year. On its website, it lists more than two dozen charities, Jewish and other, to which it donates proceeds.

The game is attracting a new generation because there is “a real sense of fun and play” connected with it, in part because so many people remember their mothers and grandmothers playing, said Heinz, who isn’t Jewish. She learned to play while living in China the year before she began graduate school. Her aunt, also not Jewish, plays Mahjong with friends from the local Jewish community center where they work out.

People “have seen the game played by mothers and grandmothers and saw how much fun they had, and inherited their sets [of tiles]. They want to recreate those great feelings and feel close to their mother and grandmother. That’s why it’s coming back among people our age,” said Meth Kestin, who works as an attorney and is now the married mother of two young daughters.

It was in the post-World War II era that Mahjong became associated with Jewish women, said Heinz. People began moving out of cities into suburbs and the attendant baby boom created huge swaths of young families living in suburban developments.

“Mahjong remains a really powerful tool for building community. What’s interesting is how Mahjong helped connect various geographic regions of these new, strongly Jewish communities with each other as part of the connective tissue of postwar Jewish culture,” Heinz said. “It was a simultaneous tradition of philanthropy and female networks.”

The game “lent itself well to Jewish vacation enclaves, like the Catskills and Miami Beach, where women spent long periods without men,” said Martens Yaverbaum.

And while interest in playing Mahjong is now increasingly diversifying, Heinz said, “it’s important to recognize and honor the distinctly Jewish connections to the game.”

Earlier this year, Meth Kestin moved from New York City to South Orange, N.J. with her husband and daughters. Though she hasn’t taught Mahjong in a couple of years, requests continue to come in from people who want to learn. With her hands full at the moment, she is turning them down. But in her new area “they have a Jewish community center and lots of active synagogues, so I have a feeling that there’s more teaching in my future.”

Charlotte Levy, second from the left, and her mah jongg group in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s. Credit: Lauren Sodano

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