Mahj!

by Denise Heimlich, OSRUI Staff Member and Mah Jongg Player

The sound of tiles clacking on the table evokes clear memories for some women of mom playing mah jongg while children try to sleep down the hall or upstairs.  Others are the first of their families to take up the game.  I don’t remember my mother playing, but I inherited a “vintage” mah jongg set from my aunt.  At last weekend’s Mah Jongg and Games retreat at OSRUI, the rotunda was filled with square game tables, and the sounds of conversation, clacking, and calls of “mahj” could be heard all around.

OSRUI's rotunda was filled with the sounds of conversation and clacking tiles at the recent Mah Jongg & Games weekend.

OSRUI’s rotunda was filled with the sounds of conversation and clacking tiles at the recent Mah Jongg & Games weekend.

The women on the retreat came from various experience levels – one woman had been playing for 30 years and a few came to learn the game.  Many participants got into the game through Sisterhood – the Women of Reform Judaism chapter of their congregation.  I learned the game about eight years ago with a group of friends – for most of us our youngest kids were all in high school and driving.  Suddenly the idea of a weekly night out with the girls wasn’t so farfetched.  Why mah jongg?  Because everyone we knew was playing!

For proof of the game’s popularity, check your local history museum:  Project Mah Jongg explores the traditions, history and meaning of the game in Jewish–American life from the 1920s to today.  Curated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, this “wildly popular” exhibit is now traveling around the U.S. and currently in Atlanta.  May is Mah Jongg Month at the Chicago History Museum, with games, classes and special events.  For serious players, there are mah jongg tournaments around the country and even a mah jongg cruise.

I don’t think I’m tournament material but I enjoyed playing over the weekend.  I have to admit I was a little nervous before the retreat.  None of my mahj friends was available and I was concerned about playing with people I didn’t know.  Our weekly game is heavy on the wine, snacks and conversation – the game takes a back seat.  But I needn’t have worried.  By the end of the weekend most of us were rotating from table to table, getting to know each other and learning different styles of play.  Long walks, Shabbat services, and a white elephant auction (which raised money for the OSRUI scholarship fund) rounded out the weekend.

According to Project Mah Jongg, when it was introduced in the 1920s, “mah jongg games offered relaxation, companionship, and a way to raise money for worthy causes. … Today, hundreds of thousands of people play mah jongg, and it continues to be a vital part of communal, personal, and cultural life.”

I’d love to tell you more, but I’m off to play mahj!

OSRUI’s next Mah Jongg & Games weekend is scheduled for September 12-14, 2014.

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