Last week I received the following article three times from different people. The article is from an online daily inspirational newsletter, Jewniverse. The author, Temim Fruchter, according to Wikipedia, “is the drummer in The Shondes, an indie punk band from Brooklyn, NY. Fruchter is outspoken about being an Orthodox-raised Jewish musician and opposing the occupation of Palestine. In 2007, Heeb Magazine listed Fruchter as one of the Heeb 100. Fruchter’s writing has also been published in a number of venues. She is a regular contributor to Tom Tom Magazine, a magazine about female drummers and is a former blogger for AfterEllen, the online magazine.”
It’s a brief article that should elicit many conversations and further interest in how our beloved game became known as a Jewish game. What’s your opinion on why the game became so popular among Jewish women? However, please note that Mah Jongg does NOT date back to Confucius!
HOW MAH JONGG BECAME JEWISH
By Temim Fruchter
How did a game that graced ancient Chinese tables (in the company, some posit, of Confucius) come to grace contemporary Jewish tables (in the company, perhaps, of babka and Slivovitz)?
While books, documentary films, and traveling museum exhibits have puzzled over Mah Jongg becoming such a Jewish craze, no one has reached a definitive answer. Could it be connected to the formation of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) by a group of Jewish women in 1937? Or to its popularity among Jewish wives during World War II while their men were away? Or the game’s prominence at Jewish bungalow colonies in the mid-20th century? Or else, as NMJL president Ruth Unger believes, that selling Mah Jongg cards functioned as a fundraising source for synagogue sisterhoods and Hadassah chapters?
Whatever the reason, the game has remained a fixture in the Jewish world ever since it came to the U.S. in the 1920s. And even today, says, Annelise Heinz, of Stanford University’s Department of History, the game is enjoying a Jewish renaissance. “Many of the Jewish daughters who once rejected Mah Jongg are now returning to the game as a way to connect with their Jewish identities and rekindle memories of their mothers.”
As someone who connects vis a vie large-scale regional and local tournaments, and dozens of emails and calls everyday with Mah Jongg players, I can honestly say the game is popular across a increasingly wide swath of demographics. I would agree with the NMJL President Ruth Unger, on the manner in which American-style Mah Jongg became popular within the Jewish community in the 20th century. However, I don’t think I would characterize its popularity today as a “Jewish renaissance,” according to Stanford University’s Annelise Heinz
Many of us originally saw it as a game that only “old ladies” played (our Mothers were probably in their late 30’s and early 40’s when we made this determination; and declared we “would never play it”)…but now many recognize it as a fun and challenging game that fits neatly into our busy schedules. Better yet, it keeps us socially involved and mentally alert. Effectively, we even have opportunities to expand its benefits to include community, school, church, and charity.
As it should, the game is evolving; and with the advent of national competition, ranks and Mah Jongg Master Points it has even gained respect and integrity internationally. I think this 21st century game will continue in popularity as it appeals to younger players, and those of us who are looking for a fresh way to connect with new friends and neighbors.
Hi Gladys – thank you for this wonderful comment. You and I think along the very same lines! I probably will put your message on a blog posting so that everyone can see it instead of just those who read these comments (with your permission, of course!). Also, in the new year I will be doing a lot of postings about the March tournament – I am so excited to be there and finally meet you in person! In the meantime, I am sending you all good wishes for a very happy and healthy New Year! Ann xxo
Thanks so much for this post! I had no idea I was quoted in it until I saw it on your blog! As a quick note, in the article this blogger is drawing from, I talk about a broader mahjong renaissance (I don’t use the words “Jewish renaissance”) — I’ve met many Jewish women who are coming to their mothers’ game (often to their surprise, as Gladys mentions!) as a specific cross-generation connection, but also many other groups and individuals are embracing the game as well. I feel fortunate to be experiencing the game’s resurgence!
Hi Annelise – and Happy New Year! Yes, I also feel fortunate to be experiencing the resurgence and broadened interest in the game. I find it interesting that, although many people still think of this as a Jewish woman’s game, I am the only Jew in my Mah Jongg group. None of us were drawn to the game as a way to connect with our mothers but, rather, an interest was sparked in us simply by chance. And, isn’t it interesting how we accidentally run across articles where we are quoted but had no idea that we were a part of the article! It has happened to me a number of times as I am sure it happens to you frequently.