Bam! It's Mah Jonng!

March 4, 2013

By Julie Lookatch, Gan Ami Communications & Outreach Coordinator

You may have grown up hearing your mom and her friends talking and laughing alongside the sound of clicking tiles. Or maybe you’ve seen groups of women playing in the coffee houses and wondered what it’s all about. Mah Jonng, or Maj, as it’s more commonly called, is a rummy-like game played with tiles rather than cards. Four players sit at a square table facing each other with a rack of 13 tiles and a card listing the hands that they are trying to “make” with the tiles.

Mah Jonng originated in China thousands of years ago as a game solely for the ruling classes and was introduced in the United States in 1920. The main way that American Mah Jonng differs from Chinese Mah Jonng is that it uses a card of Standard Hands, against which all games are played. These cards are changed annually and are published by The National Mah Jonng League. Each year, the new card features new hands to keep the game interesting from year to year. The cards usually come out in April and are available at most synagogue gift shops or online.

There are three main suits: Cracks, Bams and Dots; as well as tiles called Flowers, Jokers and Winds. As players draw and discard the tiles, they call out their names, “Six Crack,” “East,” “Nine Bam.” These sounds, along with the laughter of close friends sharing their stories and their lives, are the sounds of Mah Jonng.

So, why has Mah Jonng become so popular again? For many years, women gathered once a week in their homes to play with their friends, and Maj was more of a private, closed game.  In recent years, the coffee house atmosphere has brought Maj out into the open and younger women are finding the game to be as fascinating as their mothers and grandmothers did.

But, ultimately, the appeal of Mah Jonng is not just the game. The game is challenging enough to stay interesting, but once you learn, it is not so challenging that you can’t chit-chat with your friends. Having an excuse to sit down for a couple of hours and talk with your friends about your kids, your spouse, your job – this is valuable time. It’s incredibly helpful to have a place to vent, to get ideas, to share common experiences. My Maj Girls (there are 14 of us) are the group of women I count on for everything.  We are there for each other for simchas and shivas and everything in between. It is the game that unites us, but we have become connected through every aspect of our lives.

Every Monday, the ladies gather to play Maj at the JCC in the Soref Community Hall, and as I walk by each week on my way from Gan Ami to other parts of the building, I love to hear the sounds of the game. Some of the ladies have been playing for years and some are just beginning to learn. Newcomers are always welcome.

In addition, the JCC will be hosting a Mah Jonng Retreat on Tuesday, April 9 - Wendesday, April 10 at the Daniel M. Soref Retreat Center in Fredonia. Contact Diane Sobel 414-967-825 or Cathy Prieto 414-967-8248 if you are interested in joining the fun.