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by Sarah Blustain

Mah-Jongg in the Lives of Jewish Women

Call up a Jewish community center these days, and you’ll likely find a mah-jongg game about to convene. Seattle, Albuquerque, Nashville, Denver, Stamford, Albany, … and what seem to be hundreds more. Mah-jongg is back.

Elissa Meth Kestin, a New Yorker in her 30s, took up the game in order to be able to play with her grandmother. Soon Kestin, who blogs at bamcrak.com, was teaching it formally at a Jewish center serving mostly young, single women. “Many people my age have sets in their closets” — inherited from their grandmothers, aunts, mothers — and they have “these wonderful memories of the game.”

But before mah-jongg was Jewish, it was the craze of non-Jewish America. Introduced in the early 1920s, mah-jongg was exotic and fabulous. A set, notes a new exhibition on the game, “added to the sophisticate’s repertoire. … [It] had the appeal of simulating an encounter with another culture.” “Project Mah Jongg,” running through January 2011 at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, traces the Jewish fascination with the game. Jewish women, notes curator Melissa Martens, embraced the game as an “acceptable” pastime that had been “vetted” as American. Quickly, they began playing it in their living rooms and in community centers and synagogues, using the game to raise money for Jewish causes.

Today, the National Mah Jongg League, founded by a group of Jewish women in 1937, boasts well over 300,000 members, a number that president Ruth Unger estimates has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Why? Consider it another step in the great American experiment of assimilation. “We have become very much more inclusive,” Unger told Lilith. “Most of the new members that are coming in, we don’t know how to spell their last names. Does that say it?”

In these pages, Dorothy Stern explains how mah-jongg games in that earlier era both acculturated and oppressed the Jewish women who loved them.

But not all games today are your grandma’s mah-jongg. Kestin, who works full time, plays about three regular games a month in addition to the sold-out classes she teaches at New York’s 92nd St. Y. Gone are the fine china and bridge mix. Fancy? “Not in my circles. Often we order in and eat off the plates they’ve provided.”

Mah-Jongg in the Lives of Jewish Women

The articles in this special section:

Tiles & Tribulations

by Dorothy Stern