Mah jongg, the centuries-old tile game of Chinese origin, is a favorite pastime for American Jewish women. A fad in the United States in the 1920s, it regained popularity in 1937 when a group of Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League based in New York City. Each year, the league issues the much-anticipated new card listing the different winning combinations of tiles. The game has been passed down from mother to daughter, friend to friend. Jewish organizations, from synagogue sisterhoods to Hadassah chapters, use the game as a fundraising tool, selling the cards and receiving donations from the league. The Tucson International Jewish Film Festival has shown the movie, “Mah Jongg: The Tiles That Bind,” followed by game play.
This inexpensive form of communal entertainment involves both strategy and luck and appeals to youth and seniors alike. On Jan. 9, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Young Women’s Cabinet hosted “Mahj, Mojitos & Mitzvahs” at the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy. Seventy-five attendees nibbled on hors d’oeuvres, sipped, schmoozed, and played the game. They also donated grocery gift cards and toiletries for Jewish Family & Children’s Services. Tables were labelled for “beginners,” “social players,” or “serious players,” with teachers on hand for instruction.
Here is a sampling of some long-running mahj groups in town:
In March 1983, Shelley Fleischman (now Shelley Heyman), Lois Jacowsky, Hannah Meyerson (now of Scottsdale), and Judy Schultz began their mahj journey at Shelley’s house. Over 35 years later, current players include Shelley, Lois, and Judy plus Sara Borin, Rosie Eilat-Kahn, Hedy Feuer, Ellen Kier, and Robin Pozez. These gals have a weekly dinner game, rotating homes or using the party room at Risky Business. Members have traveled together — to Israel, to Robin’s home in Rhode Island, and to Rosie’s home in San Diego for a yearly weekend of day-and-night mahj, laughter and fun. Birthdays are celebrated, with a milestone-year special dinner and tiara. Each year, the group organizes a tournament that benefits Congregation Anshei Israel’s United Synagogue Youth, honoring the memory of Linda Roy who served as CAI youth director and was part of their mahj circle. According to Judy, this tight-knit group has become best friends, present for each other’s simchas, sorrows and everything in between. (And their husbands get along, too!)
Temple Emanu-El hosts a “drop in” mah jongg group on Monday mornings from 10 a.m. until noon (except when the Temple office is closed). It was started by Women of Reform Judaism in 2005. In the beginning, Shelley Kirchner mentored those new to the game and she has been followed by one of their seasoned players, Emlee Silverman. Ruth Reiter describes their members as a friendly, casual, ecumenical group that enjoys kibbitzing and having fun. Harriett Cowhey, a former Temple choir director, learned the game at the synagogue and then formed a mahj group at her church, Mount Zion Lutheran, where she is organist and choir director. The Temple players welcome winter visitors and Tucson regulars alike. They play for the amount of money dictated on the card. When a wall game (no winner) occurs, everyone at that table puts 25 cents into the tzedakah (charity) box, with the money given to Temple’s Mitzvah Corps.
In 1995, Essie Nadler convinced Ruthann Pozez to co-chair the Anne Frank exhibit at the Tucson Jewish Community Center in return for helping Ruthann form a mah jongg group. The initial circle of a dozen women included many who served on the Anne Frank committee. For years, they met weekly at Skyline Country Club before transferring to Ruthann’s home. The current players include Joan Bykoff (a Tucson newcomer), Sally Duchin, Bev Fine, Ruth Kolker, Ruthann, Marilyn Prensky, Janet Seltzer, and Naomi Spitzer. Birthdays are a highlight, especially Ruthann’s milestone 90th birthday celebration.
In 1994, core group Nancy Drapkin, Cathy Olswing, Emlee Silverman, Lisa Sternberg, and Ginger Waldstein began mahj play. Others have come and gone with current regulars including Sherrie McConaughey, Adria Rosen, Irene Saffer, and Natalie Sharka. They usually play two tables at various homes one night a week and everyone brings something to add to the snack bar. Cupcakes, treats, or an at-home or restaurant dinner make birthdays special. Over the years, girls’ trips have included Las Vegas, a Mexican Riviera cruise, Sante Fe, and the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, with game play always part of the journey.
In 2012, Cathy began the Hadassah Southern Arizona Mah Jongg Tournament, held at Skyline Country Club the Sunday of President’s weekend in February. She notes that with her encouragement, her mahj group members all join Hadassah if they are not members already.
According to Joan Cole, her mah jongg group began about 24 years ago, and although players have come, gone, and changed, the game goes on! Current “mah jongettes,” as the late, beloved Lolita Grabb called them, consist of Lee Cohen, Joan, Bette Cooper, Ruth Kolker, Caren Newman, Debbie Rosenberg, Marlene Sandler, Joyce Sattinger, Janet Seltzer, and Ruth Solomon. The women use a variety of sets, from ones with large tiles to ancient ones inherited from members’ mothers. They began playing at Ventana Country Club and re-located three years ago to Piazza Gavi. Amidst the sound of pots banging and the smell of garlic, one or two tables meet weekly. The group convenes at 10 a.m., spending the first 15 minutes discussing movies, politics, or grandchildren’s latest activities. They then begin play, stopping for lunch before concluding at 2:30 p.m.
Phyllis Broad and her daughter Amy Direnfeld are a mother-daughter mahj duo. As a little girl, Amy would build the walls prior to her mother’s group’s arrival, getting to sit quietly and watch “just one hand” in her pajamas before going to bed and falling asleep to the tiles being called. Phyllis taught Amy and her sisters, Sherri and Judy, to play and instructed mahj classes with Hannah Meyerson for the CAI Women’s League, among others. Amy is still part of her core mahj group of 25 years. She and her mother have recently discovered how to play Siamese (two-handed mahj) and have had a running game for the last year.
Family and friends have met in Las Vegas for mah jongg madness national tournaments. Phyllis won a few rounds, but Amy’s best finish — a tournament second place — had Phyllis kvelling at her daughter’s success.
Phyllis has made mahj a part of the next generation, as four of her great-grandchildren in St. Louis also play. When the family convenes there for Passover, hours in the afternoon are spent over the game. Phyllis is definitely the star and resident expert. Truly “the tiles that bind.”
Time to share
As a mahj player trained by Phyllis, I enjoyed writing this column. Now, it’s back to covering your recent activities – I’m all ears. Keep me posted at the Post – 319-1112. L’shalom.