The tile is back in style mah jongg event at CJM

For many people, the term “mah jongg” conjures an image of older Jewish women clacking tiles while gossiping with friends, maybe sitting out by a pool somewhere in Florida — especially for those of us whose grandmothers did exactly that.

But according to Sara Levy Linden, that stereotype’s time has passed. In living rooms around the Bay Area, at special meet-ups in coffee shops and pubs — and now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco — people of all ages are showing up to try their hand at the ancient game.

A 32-year-old Arizona native who’s been playing since high school (inspired by Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”), Linden began leading mah jongg classes and open-play sessions at the CJM on a semi-regular basis in 2011. The events are free with the price of museum admission, but advance registration is required. Word has been spreading quickly: November’s class was full two weeks ahead of time. The next one is set for Feb. 12, from 1 to 5 p.m.

Sara Levy Linden

That’s thanks in part to what Linden, a San Francisco resident, calls a mah-jongg “renaissance,” especially among members of Generation X.

“People are realizing it’s not just for grandmas,” she says. “Everyone needs activities that let them unplug, social things to do with a group of friends.”

Linden received her first mah jongg set as a college graduation present. For the 10 years that followed, the game was a treasured pastime as she built a career in medical sales. Somewhere along the way, she realized she loved teaching. “And I started thinking — there must be some way to marry teaching to mah jongg,” she recalls.

So a few years ago after relocating to San Francisco, she put the word out that she was looking to create an informal mah jongg group. She wasn’t quite expecting the reaction she got. The Mahj Club, which she founded in 2009, is a way for mah jongg novices to get a grasp of the game in a friendly, casual environment. Groups of friends contact Linden, and she travels to them for a series of four lessons or one all-day boot camp.

Those interested in learning range in age from their 20s to their 90s, Linden says.

At the CJM events, she gives a basic lesson, and then the class becomes “open play” — a nice contrast to some of the more intensive, competitive tournament-style games attended by the pros, says Linden.

As for why the game is enjoying such renewed popularity?

“It’s a combination of things, ” says Linden. “Part of it is just whatever’s old is always new. Also the motifs, the designs on the tiles can be very interesting and hip.”

But more than anything, “with everything we do on a day-to-day basis with smartphones and Twitter and Facebook, I think we miss slower times to a certain extent, without even realizing it,” she surmises. “It’s nice to just have an excuse to sit down and be with friends, face to face.”

Mah Jongg Open Play, for all levels, 1 to 5 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Limited capacity.

Free with museum admission; advance registration required. (415) 655-7800 or [email protected]

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.