Four women stare down at bone-white game pieces in their hands.
Plastic tiles clatter and clink in the center of the table. The players gaze over wooden racks with plastic arms that hold a double-decker set of even more tiles, stamped with images of Chinese characters and numbers, dragons and geometric shapes.
It can mean only one thing: a mah-jongg game is in session.
Originating in China, mah-jongg in some ways is similar to rummy: Like the card game, it’s about matching patterns and numbers. It was introduced to the United States in the 1930s and became popular among Jewish women.
“It is this interesting thing that started out as a Chinese game that in America is mostly played by the Chinese and the Jews,” said Liba Kornfeld, Jewish Family Life director at the Jewish Community Center. “It’s this weird relationship.”
The New Orleans Jewish Community Center celebrated the game, along with a former employee and dedicated player, at the fourth annual Harriet W. Kugler Memorial Mah Jongg Tournament that was held on Sunday, Oct. 19.
Harriet Wainer Kugler, who suffered a fatal stroke in September 2010, was not only a long time dedicated employee of the JCC but a committed community volunteer, philanthropist and teacher of Mah Jongg. During the past decade, Harriet taught hundreds of women both young and old and even a few men, the ancient board game of Mah Jongg. Many years ago she was a featured instructor at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival cultural tent and founded and directed the JCC Annual Crescent City Mah Jongg Tournament which ran for four years prior to her untimely death.
Gregg Swain, my co-author on our book, Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game, spoke before the tournament on how the game has developed over the years and shared details from our book.
But the focus was, of course, the tournament; the winner received a cash prize and bragging rights.
Shirley Goldman won the first tournament four years ago.
“I won $50,” Goldman said, without pausing her game. “Which I re-contributed to the senior group at the JCC. But I won a purse that had on the cover of it…”
“ ‘Sore loser’?” quips Barbara Laufer.
“No!” Goldman retorts. “The skyline of Jerusalem.”
The other players, Rosalyn Allison and Sylvia Emerman, join Goldman and Laufer in a laugh.
The jokes seem tough, but they’re told with warmth. Mistakes are allowed, and so is self-deprecation.
After Emerman declares “Mah Jongg” to the table — indicating she’s won the hand — Goldman looks over.
“You may have noticed: Sylvia has Mah Jonged. Roz has Mah Jongged. Barbara has Mah Jongged. But I have yet to Mah Jongg.”
“You Mah Jongged once last week,” says Laufer.
“That’s right. Once.” Everyone chuckles.
Each player has a card printed by the National Mah Jongg League, based in New York City, which displays the various combinations allowed that year. The league updates the cards every year to keep the game challenging.
But it’s not the challenge that most players find most important.
Leslie Fishman, executive director of the New Orleans Jewish Community Center, remembers how Kugler regarded the game.
“She always thought of Mah Jong as a way of bringing friends together and friends enjoying each other’s company,” she said.
“It gives people who have retired and even young people an opportunity to get a break, go with their friends, have a deep talk and a little nibble.”
That was the shared sentiment by the participants at the recent game, each of whom is in their 80s: This is not about competition but about companionship.
It’s spending a few hours with close friends, separated from daily worries and stress. The conversation ranges widely, including, at the recent afternoon, the Saints.
Gazing over the table of tiles, Goldman looked stern at the mention of the team’s prospects of winning.
“Let’s say this: They’d better,” she said.
“Drew Brees waited out to sign the contract until he got all those millions.”
“Their hype before this season was ridiculous, and all they’ve done is lose.”
Soon the game is interrupted as another player declares “Mah Jongg,” and the ladies slide their tiles to the center to reset the game.
This is an updated and edited version of an article written by Phil McCausland| Special to The New Orleans Advocate. Thanks to www.wherethewindsblow.com, and their Facebook page, for the lead on this story.