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April 15, 1988 - Image 80

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-04-15

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

I ANN ARBOR

Ow'

4

Mah-Jongg Anyone?

A high-stakes Chinese gambling game mysteriously
fell into the hands of Jewish women

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89

FRIDAY, APRIL 15, •1988

t may not be one of
the great conundrum in
history, but it's
something a few people, at
least, have pondered.
How did it come to pass that
an ancient game — most often
played for very high stakes by
Chinese men — end up being
played, in a much-altered
form, by Jewish ladies? The
game, of course, is mah-jongg.
And though it's not only
played by Jewish women,
mah-jongg does occupy a
special place in the history of
Jewish social life in the 20th
Century.
"I've always wondered why
Jewish women played this
Chinese game," says Yehudit
Newman, senior program
director at the Jewish Com-
munity Center in Ann Arbor.
Mah-jongg is so closely ent-
wined with Jewish cultural
life that even non-Jews think
of it as a de facto Jewish
game.
"There's the Chinese ver-
sion and there's the Jewish
version," says Ann Arborite
Mabelle Hseuh, 59, who was
born in Fukien, China, but
only learned to play the game
— the Chinese version of it —
in the U.S.
Ann Arbor may not have
Chinese mah-jongg parlors
like San Francisco and it
doesn't offer tournament play
like they do in New York, but •
mah-jongg- is still around and
some people, like Newman,
are hoping that it's making a
comeback of sorts.
The Jewish Community
Center just began offering a
class, "Return of Mah-Jongg,"
and Newman hopes that as
time goes on a regular group
of beginners and experienced
players will get established
and meet weekly.
Why mah-jongg? "We're in
a Jewish Center. I'm in-
terested in bringing it back
because I would like some-
thing that people can't find
someplace else," says
Newman.
The JCC's timing couldn't
be more opportune. April is
the time of year when revis-
ed mah-jongg cards called
"set hands" are sent to
players from the National
Mah Jongg League based in
New York. Ann Arborites
Eunice Cook, Sophie Mordes,
Ruth Frankel and Mildred
Carron, who were playing at
the JCC one Wednesday

Robe rt Chase

Special to The Jewish News

Mah-jongg: The tiles made a clicking, clacking sound and had names
like "bamboo" and "crack."

afternoon, have all sent in
their $4 for the new cards.
"For a small fee you get a
year's entertainment," says
Ruth Unger, president of the
league which has over
150,000 members. For a small
fee some people have gotten
decades of entertainment.
People play the game for
different reasons. "I took it up
because I wanted to associate
with Jewishpeople," says Ann
Rosencrantz. When she was
growing up there weren't
many Jewish social events in
Ypsilanti so mah-jongg games
offered her an opportunity
she couldn't resist.
Mildred Carron learned the
game in a more familiar set-
ting. "My mother played
when I was a youngster. She
had a bamboo set," Carron
recalls. "I still have Grandma
Sadie's ivory tiles!'
Mah-jongg — which is quite
similar to gin rummy — may
be good for the grey matter,
but many people think its
real importance lies
elsewhere.
"It's the one game that has
a social element," says Unger.
"It's bonding. You can sit
down with strangers and
become friends."
Rosencrantz agrees that the
social element is important.
"There's as much talk as
play," she says. , Finkel, who
moved to Ann Arbor 17 years
ago, recalls how popular mah-
jongg was when she was liv-
ing in New London, Conn.
years ago. "On Tuesday night
you couldn't find any friends
at home — they were all out
playing mah-jongg."
Some of those friends may
still be playing. "One game
that I know of has been in ex-
istence for 50 years," Unger

says. "It's like having extend-
ed families!'
Many players have a sen-
timental place in their heart
for the game. But even those
who have never played mah-
jongg can feel that way.
"Everything seemed so ex-
otic," recalls Sue Nisbett,
whose mother tried to teach
her the fundamentals of the
game when she was growing
up in Brooklyn in the 1950s.
"I remember the sound of the
tiles — a clicking, clacking
noise — and the lively sounds
of the women," she says. "And

"One game that I
know has been in
existence for 50
years."

the tiles had great names —
bamboo, crack!'
Even though Nisbett never
played the game, she and her
sister did play with
something else. "My mother
had a beautiful mah-jongg
set. It came in a suitcase,"
Nisbett recalls. "We would
take the set out and just play
with it. I remember the red,
green, blue and white coins."
But as special as the set was
for Nisbett, there was one
other ingredient to the Tues-
day mah-jongg night that was
especially noteworthy. "There
was a candy store at East
17th Street and Avenue U. We
would go and buy very expen-
sive hand-dipped chocolates
for the ladies," Nisbett says.
"It was very exciting to be
part of all this."
One of the unique qualities
of the game is that far from
being a serious gambling
game, the Americanized ver-

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