Mah jongg unites people of all ages, places in Bay Area

When Dini Freeman's mother died, she left no estate. Her legacy for the next generations was her two mah jongg purses with a total of $4.32 in winnings and her mah jongg tiles.

Until the end of her life, Freeman's mother played mah jongg with three other women: one who could hardly hear, one who couldn't reach the table, and one who constantly clicked her false teeth. But as long as Freeman's mother could sit up at the table and play, she wasn't failing.

Ilse Treiger immigrated to San Francisco from Europe in 1937 at age 18. About 10 years later, she began playing mah jongg and has played ever since. Though her original mah jongg group has not remained intact, because of relocation, Alzheimer's and death, unless a member of her current group gets sick, Treiger plays mah jongg the first two Wednesdays of every month.

Mah jongg is not just for bubbes. To enable her group of 16 young mothers to play the game each week without guilt, Kim Greenhall and the others have set up a biweekly poker game for their husbands. The moms, women in their 20s and 30s living in the Danville-Walnut Creek area, play every Wednesday night in alternating homes.

Some say mah jongg has never lost its popularity. Others say it's experiencing a resurgence. Whatever the truth is, the numbers are high. Freeman, who lives in San Rafael, says that "easily over 1,000 people in the Bay Area play, probably closer to 2,000."

Ruth Unger, president of the National Mah Jongg League since 1981, says nearly 300,000 mah jongg cards were sold this year.

The monetary rewards of mah jongg are hardly the main attraction. "A $4 profit is something to write home about," according to Greenhall.

Treiger's group plays "half a card," which means that a "40-cent hand" would only be worth 20 cents to the winner of the round. Her smile seems audible, even over the phone. "We are senior citizens," she says. "We have our senior moments. We play and that's it."

Mah jongg, a rummy-like game with tiles, is played with a card that lists all the possible hands allowed for the game. In order to make the game more interesting, the hands are changed every year. The Mah Jongg League, based in New York City, comes out with a card annually that is the standard for those playing the game in America.

While the origins of the game are Chinese, "mah jongg is a predominantly Jewish game," according to Unger, and has been so since the formation of the league in 1937.

What is the draw? Why would all these women spend precious time of their busy lives playing a game?

Because mah jongg is more than a game, says Freeman, who is senior adult coordinator at the Marin Jewish Community Center. Freeman, who is in her 50s, has mah jongg memories as far back as she can remember. Like a number of other Jewish women in the Bay Area, she has been playing since she was a teenager," she says. "It's a connection."

She describes the snack bowls with M&Ms and peanuts that abound on mah jongg night, and the clicking sound that fills the house as the tiles are shuffled.

Interestingly, mah tsiong means "sparrow" in Chinese; the game is thought to have been given that name because the clicking of the tiles suggests the chirping of a small bird.

Although most of the participants in Greenhall's group learned only in the past two years, the women have formed a special bond. "We're all Jewish women and that is our connection," she says.

Why did mah jongg in the United States become a predominantly Jewish game by the 1930s? The players posit different explanations.

Treiger vividly describes a scene of women in New York playing mah jongg on their stoops on hot summer days. The popularity spread that way, she conjectures.

Freeman believes B'nai B'rith started selling mah jongg cards as a fund-raiser and the donors began playing once they had the cards.

However it spread, the origins of the rummy-like game are ancient, "dating back to the time of Confucius," according to the National Mah Jongg League Web site. "It was originally played solely by the ruling classes; the Mandarins refused to permit other inhabitants of the country to enjoy the pleasure of this aristocratic pastime."

Wealthy, cultured New York women began playing the game in the 1920s, after discovering it on their trips to the Orient. They began spending hours every day playing the game. The popularity soon spread to the Jews, generally the wealthy German women, and it has remained predominantly a Jewish game ever since.

"Mah jongg used to be played among non-working housewives, but now women in professional positions play as well. This goes against the image of who plays mah jongg, " says Freeman.

Mindy Berkowitz, a resident of San Jose, recalls how "the ladies of my mother's swim club in New York played, smoking cigarettes, ordering diet Tab and clacking tiles all day long. We have the image of the East Coast yenta, but that is not only who play anymore."

Berkowitz plays with two groups of 40-year-olds and has organized a tournament for the past two years at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. In addition, she also plays mah jongg on Shabbat afternoons with husband Allen, the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Emet in Alamo, and her 11- and 14-year-old stepsons.

Many have the misconception that only "bubbes call out the [mah jongg] tiles," Berkowitz says. "But now my little stepsons do."

Discussing the stereotypes, Greenhall says her father-in-law laughed at her for playing, saying she's "becoming this [old] woman."

"I get the joke, but it's not really a stigma," she says. "People laugh at me, but I am teaching my 5-, 8- and 10-year-olds how to play."

Freeman, who taught her daughters when they were teenagers, as well as 85-year-olds at the JCC, says mah jongg "appeals to a large range of ages. "

Though the individual players do not win large sums, the Mah Jongg League donates to charity the hundreds of thousands of dollars it earns from selling $5 and $7 cards. This nonprofit organization donates mostly to Jewish causes, but it also funds organizations that help the general community, including an association that researches mental illness.

The appeal of mah jongg, say players, is not only the variety and quantity of snacks that provide three hours of quality noshing time, nor is it only the connection to their past.

For hundreds of women, the game offers a time to get together with their Jewish friends in a setting other than a synagogue and work on their emotional and spiritual well-being. For Jewish women, the get-togethers establish another aspect of community.

"It's cheaper and more fun than an hour of therapy," says Freeman in all seriousness.

Like Shabbat dinners that occur in Jewish dining rooms on Friday nights, mah jongg night has become "sacrosanct" for the women who play the game.

"No one misses a game," says Freeman.

The game becomes a tradition for most who play it, but like all "religious" traditions, it takes on different meanings for different people.

Mindy Berkowitz, executive director of Beth David, says one's reason for playing the game determines the kind of experience one will have. "I honestly play more for the game," she says.

Treiger agrees, adding, "It gives me something to do with my hands."

If mah jongg night were viewed as an extended metaphor for Shabbat dinner, Berkowitz and Treiger might be the ones who most enjoyed the ritual of cutting the challah and eating the matzah ball soup, while Greenhall and Freeman would mostly appreciate the family atmosphere and unity.

"During the game we have regular conversations to the point that we stop to finish the conversation," says Greenhall. "We play to get together," says Greenhall. Occasionally, she plays with her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother keeps mumbling, "You're too slow."

"Its not that we're too slow," Greenhall says. "We just stop in the middle of a game to talk."

Freeman says her mah jongg group helped her "through the trauma of planning a wedding" for her daughter and even gave the wedding shower. They joked that "if the wedding got boring they can set up a mah jongg table."

Whether the players are getting the most enjoyment from the actual game or from the socializing, clearly neither is mutually exclusive. And the tradition is important to all of them.

Treiger, who had broke a tooth only an hour earlier, says that if she is still playing mah jongg at 82, she'll be playing "until they drag me out by my feet."

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