‘It’s a family thing’
Sue Bertenthal remembers the clanking sound of tiles and the voices of her mother and grandmother calling out phrases like “three bam,” “four crack” and “soap” while sitting around a card table with other women in the 1960s.
It’s that sense of familial connection that has kept Bertenthal herself playing mah jongg for the last 25 years.
“It’s a family thing,” Bertenthal said while picking up tiles at the inaugural meeting of Sisterhood Mah Jongg, a twice-weekly event at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills for both novices and seasoned players. “For me, it’s a meaningful thing because it’s a generational thing — I have my grandmother’s set and my mother’s set. And I love playing games.”
About a dozen women are seated around three separate tables on this particular Wednesday afternoon in July in Beth El’s Legacy Room. Most of the women are longtime “maahj” players, but there are also several newbies in the bunch, as well as others who used to play and need a refresher. They are all taking cues from Shirley Moritz, the designated “official instructor.”
“Maahj is a great way for people to meet people,” said Judi Feldstein, who has been playing for eight years and came to Beth El this particular day to help others learn. Feldstein not only has a regular game in Pittsburgh, but also plays as a snowbird in Tucson, Ariz., during the winter months.
Mah jongg originated in China during the time of Confucius and remains popular there today, according to the National Mah Jongg League’s website. The game was first brought to America in the early 20th century, and by 1920, Abercrombie & Fitch, the first retailer to import mah jongg sets, had sold more than 12,000.
The NMJL was formed in 1937 by a group of Jewish women, enthusiasts of the game who met in New York City to standardize mah jongg so that all players would play with the same hands and rules. The League produces a new card each year with new hands and rules, which players can purchase online for $8. Proceeds from the sale of the cards go to various charities, including Brandeis University, Hadassah, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and UNICEF.
The NMJL, which started with only 32 members, now has more than 350,000, according to Larry Unger, acting president of the League.
The game has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, Unger said. “We see it with the card sales and the membership sales. And there are lots of blogs, lots of websites, lots of tournaments and tournament directors all over the country.”
The game is also catching on with younger players.
“In New York, we’re hearing more about younger women getting together at coffee houses or in local small cafes to play,” Unger said.
Why mah jongg has been so popular among Jewish women for almost 100 years is “an open question,” said Unger.
“Mah jongg has been around in the Jewish community for so long,” he explained. “It’s handed down, if you will, from one person to another. And in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, it went hand in hand with Jewish philanthropy. We’ve given away a lot of money to charity — a lot. And lots of temples and synagogues carry forward that mission. ‘Friendship and charity’ is our motto.”
The passion for maahj is often passed down from mother to daughter. Feldstein, like Bertenthal, remembered the games her mother used to hold in their home when she was a child.
“I used to watch my mother play,” Feldstein reminisced. “She used to let me set up the tiles.”
Although maahj remains popular, things have changed since the days when ladies took turns hosting the games in their living rooms. More often than not, today’s maahj players meet in restaurants or other public locations.
“Most people in the South Hills play at the Galleria [of Mt. Lebanon], and eat lunch there,” Feldstein said, noting that the bulk of the Galleria players are members of Beth El or Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
“When we were younger, we would play in people’s houses,” echoed Tibey Falk, who also plays at the Galleria. “But it’s easier to play at the mall. We do lunch, maybe a little shopping. It’s very much a social time.”
The social aspect of the game is a big attraction for many maahj enthusiasts, including Zandra Goldberg, who plays at various restaurants in Forest Hills, Monroeville or at the Waterfront and also plays in Florida, where she resides for some of the winter.
“I’ve been playing for 30 or 35 years,” said Goldberg, whose mother and mother-in-law were both maajh players. “I try to play every week.”
The Pittsburgh game in which Goldberg plays was organized by Hadassah member Sarita Eisner about 50 years ago. The group began with four women, but now there are 15 who regularly play every Tuesday. Like the South Hills group at the Galleria, Eisner’s group eats lunch at a restaurant and then plays maajh for a few hours. The restaurants, which include Bravo!, Red Robin and the Roman Bistro, welcome the women, said Goldberg.
“We meet at noon, and are usually done at 4,” she said. “Usually by 1:30, there aren’t too many people there. The restaurants get the business of all our lunches.”
For the most part, the women who play in Eisner’s group live in Fox Chapel, Oakland or Squirrel Hill, according to Goldberg.
“It’s been the same people forever,” she said. “It’s a social thing. It’s a Hadassah thing. We’re all friends through Hadassah.
“We support each other,” she added. “We celebrate and we mourn. It’s a nice group of friends. All the women are Jewish, and the money that’s won is given to Hadassah.”
Each woman contributes $5 every week to the game.
“We’ve given over $31,000 to Hadassah over the years,” Eisner said, adding that she encourages others who play maahj — or bridge or canasta — to consider donating the money won in their games to a charity.
“No one misses the $5, and it adds up,” Eisner said. “It’s nice for it to go someplace worthwhile. It’s meaningful.”
Mah jongg has become popular in Pittsburgh among many non-Jews as well, although non-Jewish players do not necessarily have the family connection to the game that Jewish women have.
Dorothy Drennen, who is not Jewish, runs the Pittsburgh Mah Jongg Meetup (meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Mah-Jong/), an online connection for players to find games in the city.
Drennen, who also teaches beginners’ lessons, first learned how to play about 40 years ago from a Jewish friend. When she moved to Pittsburgh from Boston a few years ago she started the online meetup “so I would have people to play with,” she said.
Drennen runs two weekly games, one at the Panera Bread in Bakery Square on Tuesday evenings and one at the Panera Bread in Oakland on Friday evenings. She has about 30 “regulars” who come to play, mostly women, but also the occasional man. The ages of the players range from the 30s to the 70s.
“We seem to attract about equal numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish players,” Drennen said. “Many of the women who come say they remember hearing the sound of tiles as a child. Those are the women who come from Jewish families.”
Mah jongg is “challenging” and “complex,” she said. “The game has a fairly steep learning curve. But once you master the basics, the game is very challenging and has infinite variety.”
Drennen also pointed to the social aspect of the game as part of its appeal.
“There is a bit of room to socialize,” she said. “Lots of friendships have been formed there [at the mah jongg meetups]. Some of the women who met there get together to knit or to have lunch. And sometimes other games spin off from there.”
In some social circles, maahj is the glue that holds the group together.
Drennen recalled one particular woman came to a meetup and said, “I have to learn this game or find a new circle of friends; if I don’t master this game, my phone will never ring again.”
Said Drennen: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love mah jongg.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.