I lived in San Francisco for 16 years – after law school and before rabbinical school. During that time, I was invited to join a mah jongg group that had been going for many years. The group consisted of four Jewish women of multiple ages looking for a fifth so that one person – usually the evening’s host – could sit out during some games. This was important, as the group rotated homes and the host served dinner. I jumped at the chance to join what I perceived to be an exclusive and somewhat secretive club.
My mother did not play mah jongg. Well, she played once, but didn’t like. I asked her why. “All they did was gossip and eat,” she replied. “How could she not like it,” I wondered. Those were her two favorite activities.
My grandmothers (I have been told – they both died before I was born) did not play mah jongg, either. A cousin did, weekly, until the day she died a few years ago well into her late 80s. But it’s fair to say we were not a mah jongg family.
I fell in love with the game. I loved the sound of the tiles bumping up against each other. Once, our group in San Francisco was invited to the home of a Chinese co-worker of one of our group members. The co-worker and her family played mah jongg, but a very different version than we did. The various Asian versions of the game are free flowing and flexible, sort of like gin rummy. The American (read: Jewish) version took that flexible game and established acceptable and unacceptable hands, laid out on a multi-colored cards that change each year. What does it say about our people that we spend during our leisure time playing a once-flexible game that we changed to fill with rigidity and rules?
The Jewish-Asian evening was a blast. We watched them play and then they watched us, mostly shaking their heads in disbelief at how different (and strict) our game was. Then we shared an amazing Chinese dinner and some great wine.
When I left San Francisco to enter rabbinical school, I met my partner, Shira, who is now a cantor. It turned out that her parents (yes, even her father) played mah jongg. We all taught Shira how to play, and now when we are together, it doesn’t take long for the tiles to emerge. We spend many an evening playing game after game until someone starts falling asleep and calls it a night.
But alas, Shira’s parents live in Florida and we in New Hampshire, and so our visits and mah jongg games are infrequent.
Luckily for us, we have found a new group where we live. Several women from our congregation have been playing for years. We discovered them the weekend two and a half years ago when we came to visit and meet the congregation before they voted to engage me as their rabbi. I was out with the search committee on Sunday morning. Shira was brought over to the Temple. Three of mah jongg playing women were sitting at a table, tiles spread, looking for a fourth. Shira walked right over and introduced herself. “You don’t happen to play mah jongg?,” they asked. “Well, yes, I do … and so does Robin.” An hour later as I walked into the Temple, I heard Shira’s voice saying, “mah jongg!” I knew this was the place for us.
And It is on so many levels. Not the least of which is the mah jongg group. We’re hosting this Saturday night. A little wine, a potluck dinner, havdalah, and one crack, two bam! I am honored to be counted among the sisterhood of Jewish women across the world who have embraced the tradition, passing it down l’dor vador, from generation to generation.
Robin Nafshi serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.