Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
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The Young Women of Mahjong

How I found culture and community playing the game my mother—and grandmother—loved

Elyssa Goodman
August 24, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Once a month on a Tuesday, my mother picked me up from school but we couldn’t go straight home. We’d have to go to the bakery and the fruit store and possibly Publix, she’d say, because the mahjong ladies were coming over.

From Family Bakery she’d get shortbread jelly sandwich cookies dipped in rainbow or chocolate sprinkles, and from Fruit Emporium enough pineapple to kill a horse, as well as grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe, and honeydew. She’d make coffee that she’d serve in her rose-colored Fiesta mugs with the curlicue handles. She’d put out wooden folding tables that would carry rose-colored glass dishes filled with nuts and chocolate and possibly gumdrops or jelly oranges and limes covered in a thick swath of sugar. She’d cover the glass kitchen table with turquoise vinyl so the tiles wouldn’t leave scratches.

Finally, at 7:30, the doorbell would start to ring and wouldn’t stop until all my mother’s friends—four or five women, depending on the month—had arrived. There would be a clatter of tiles and laughter at the kitchen table, which I could hear from my bedroom down the hall; my father would hide out in the den, sneaking in only to make himself a plate of (probably too many) cookies and to be greeted by a chorus of the women saying, “Hi, Jeff.”

Such was the ritual at our house in Lauderhill, Florida, in the ’90s and early 2000s one Tuesday per month, since we were one of five homes in rotation. Next week, mahjong would be at Lorraine’s or Donna’s or Ilene’s or Sue’s and would eventually make its way back to us. Mom’s own floating mahjong game went on for about 20 years, its members rotating as people got married or moved or had children or all of the above.

Mahjong was a tradition for the women in my family. My mother, who has been playing for decades, learned from her mother. (“Was Grammy a good mahjong player?” I asked my mother recently. “Oh please,” she said. “Was Smokey a Bear?”) My mother offered to teach me on several occasions when I was growing up, but there were never enough people to learn with, especially within our family of three that included my father, who would rather be watching football or reading political textbooks or doing literally anything else.

‘Was Grammy a good mahjong player?’ I asked my mother recently. ‘Oh please,’ she said. ‘Was Smokey a Bear?’

So I never learned how to play. Instead, I helped Mom set up the game, taking the colorful plastic trays and weighty, yet elegantly decorated tiles from their rather business-like case. I watched as the ladies mashed the tiles around in a circle before click-clacking them into walls in front of each tray, calling every crak, bam, dot, flower, wind, dragon, soap, and whatever else as they discarded them from their hands. I was curious, yes, but I was never filled with a burning desire to play mahjong. On the contrary, I figured it wasn’t for me because I was just a kid and this was a game the older ladies played, laughing at jokes I didn’t understand and telling stories not meant for me. Theirs was not a world for me or a place I belonged. Yet, anyway.

And then, earlier this year, my friend Hannah texted me. She was thinking of starting a mahjong game, and did I want to play?

My relationship to Judaism is rather lax. I never had a bat mitzvah, I have always eaten bacon, and lobster is one of my favorite foods. I do not remember the last time I went to an entire temple service and I don’t really celebrate the Jewish holidays unless someone invites me along. Still, I feel culturally connected. I have Barbra Streisand. I have Mel Brooks and my parents’ Allan Sherman records from the ’60s. I have Zabar’s and lox and bagels and Russ & Daughters and leftover Yiddish from my mother, photographs of my grandmother wearing a leopard bikini at Grossinger’s in the Catskills, and pastrami, so much pastrami. These are the things that make me feel connected to my religion, like I’m a part of a larger culture, a history that’s a torch I can carry in ways that make sense to me, ways that prayer and required beliefs never really did. Mahjong, this game developed in China that became beloved by generations of Jewish women around the country, suddenly seemed to me another way to carry on the legacy, to feel like I was a part of a community, and feel like my Judaism, no matter what form it took, mattered. So yes, I told Hannah, I wanted to play.

I wanted to play to have a connection to Judaism, yes, but also to my mother and grandmother in particular. In addition to coloring our hair, expertly lifting a single, skeptical eyebrow, and being known for their sharp tongues, the women in our family played mahjong, and they played it well. My mother herself played well enough that, despite the age gap between my grandmother’s friends and herself, she was often invited to join if they were missing a player. That a group of aging mavens would call on my mother and her young fingers to slide tiles across a kitchen table was no small feat, rather an honor of the highest order. You couldn’t just play for them to invite you, you actually had to be skilled.

Yet in my pursuit of cultural and family traditions, there was one hitch. I still didn’t actually know how to play. But Hannah would teach, she said, in a group text to me and three other young Jewish women she later assembled for snacks and tiles in her apartment on a Sunday afternoon. The very apparent differences between millennials and baby boomers revealed themselves in the snack spread: our LaCroix and wine to their coffee and iced tea, our beet chips and focaccia with tzatziki to their fruit salad, some weird-ass wasabi chips I got at the gourmet Italian food store to their bridge mix.

Only a few of the girls knew how to play, but all of their mothers had, their grandmothers and aunts, too. They had their own stories of tiles click-clacking, of crak-bam-dotting carrying on into the night and were stirred to learn for the same reasons I was—dare I quote Tevye: tradition.

Hannah unraveled the game for us: These are the rules, this is how we pass the tiles, this is how to make the hands on the card, this is how you win, this is how you lose. At first, the hardest part was actually understanding how the hands are organized and then learning how to manipulate the tiles you have when it appears the tiles you need are no longer available. I could feel my forehead crunching into shapes usually reserved for balancing my checkbook but I actually liked it this time. It was a puzzle, a positive challenge. And besides, I didn’t want my grandmother to roll over in her grave at the sight of my miserable mahjong skills. In one afternoon of two or three games, I understood it. Not well enough to win, but there would be no grave-rolling just yet.

So now we play. Usually once a month, twice if we’re lucky, these crazy vilde chayas running all over New York take a break from their running for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to play mahjong like their mothers and grandmothers before them. We’ve gathered at Hannah’s apartment, at Remy’s, maybe one day at mine. There’s schmoozing and gossip, cheese and strawberries, occasional phone calls to a grandmother to ask how a particular rule works. The women’s partners pad through the house as quietly as my father did and we greet them in a similar chorus.

It turns out I am not quite terrible at mahjong, and I even won a hand once. I called my mother up to tell her and I could hear her beaming through the phone. Things get lost, she said, like Yiddish, which so few of us speak now. But, perhaps accordingly, my mother has learned enough that my own speech is peppered with Yiddishisms from time to time. Maybe it only makes sense that mahjong would follow suit. “You have a vintage talent!” she said with a giggle. She doesn’t still play herself—many of her crew have moved away. But she revels in the fact that I do. And she still purchases her membership playing card, complete with all the year’s mahjong hands, every year from the National Mah Jongg League. That way if someone does ask, she’s prepared. “I wouldn’t be without it,” she says. “It’s like having my driver’s license.”

While I am not at the same level as my mother yet—I don’t yet have a membership card of my own—I’m still invested in our young ladies’ game, group texts overflowing my phone’s screen trying to schedule dates into September and October. After (or during) our mahjong games, we post about it on Instagram, shots from above our tiles splayed face up in a jumble on the table, a single hand reaching for a Flower. Girls reach out to Hannah and respond to her posts. They tell her that, at 22, they’re the youngest people in their mahjong classes. We’re not alone. But that was half the point of mahjong to begin with: You never had to be.

Elyssa Goodman is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, VICE, Elle, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, among many others