NOVEMBER 22, 2018 – When Fran Levy-Freiman was a little girl, she used to hear a series of noises coming from the living room just as she was trying to go to sleep. First, there was the clicking of shuffling stacks of ceramic tiles. Then, her mother and her friends would call out a series of numbers and syllables. Finally, after around 15 minutes, someone would shout, “Mah Jongg!”
“We would make fun of them,” recalled Levy-Freiman of Swampscott, “because we had to go to bed, and they’d be going, ‘one bam, two dots …’”
Like many kids, Levy-Freiman didn’t have much interest in learning what her mother and her friends were up to during those late nights of coffee, cigarettes, and clanking tiles. But after her mother died, she regularly went to Congregation Shirat Hayam to say kaddish, where she met several other women mourning lost mothers who once played Mah Jongg. Overcome with nostalgia, the group agreed to learn the game together.
It took 16 weeks to feel fully comfortable with the complicated game, but now they’re off and running. Each week, they meet at the synagogue to play a few rounds.
For Sandy Goldstein of Salem, the unofficial organizer of the group, the game is a great way to meet new people and build community. “It brings people together,” she said. “A woman moved here from Arizona, and she called the temple, and she said, ‘Do you know anyone who plays Mah Jongg?’ So she came here and we became friends, and she was actually moving here and she says, ‘I’m going to buy a house.’ Oh, really? I’m a real estate attorney. So she became a friend, a client – life is good.”
All over the North Shore, Mah Jongg is once again connecting people. For many decades, American Jewish women played it almost exclusively among friends in their private homes, a tradition that is still thriving, according to local players. However, in the past few years, as the game has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity thanks to retiring baby boomers, it has moved into public spaces.
Locally, several senior centers and public libraries offer free games and clubs. The Temple Ner Tamid Sisterhood hosts a series of four fundraising game nights in Peabody each year that have brought in 100 Mah Jongg players seated at 25 tables. At Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, an average of 30 people gather weekly in the social hall to play.
Amy Saltz, who started the group and taught many of its members how to play, came to the game after her partner died. She enjoyed it so much that she approached Temple Emanu-El about a public group open to everyone, including people with no prior experience.
“I wanted it to feel like everyone could play, so I said I guess I’ll teach,” said Saltz, who assigns tables based on skill level. The group includes men, non-Jews, and non-temple members, although some former non-members have since joined the congregation.
“There aren’t many things in life you can do that don’t cost anything … that bring you joy and connection, and use your brain,” said Saltz.
Community was one of the principal reasons that brought Jewish women to the game in the first place. Though it has been in China for centuries, it only came to America at the beginning of the 1920s when Joseph Babcock, an engineer for Standard Oil, went to China and brought Mah Jongg back with him. It became a massive fad popular with both men and women. However, as interest waned with the general public, it remained popular with Jewish women, who founded the National Mah Jongg League in 1937.
The league established a version of Mah Jongg with American rules, and helped spread the game amongst close-knit Jewish social networks.
“To me, it’s important and meaningful that [Mah Jongg] actually became specifically associated with Jewish American women,” said Annelise Heinz, a history professor at the University of Oregon who is releasing an upcoming book on the subject. “Part of that has to do with the historical accident of having this really remarkably talented group of game smiths who were focused on promoting the game, and they were most effectively able to do that through Jewish women’s networks.”
Heinz also points out that Mah Jongg has a tempo that facilitates conversation and bonding. “I really think that there are unique qualities to Mah Jongg that make it a particularly effective way to be together,” she said. “The tempo sets it apart because of the shuffling of tiles between the games. It takes longer to shuffle the tiles than it does to shuffle a deck of cards … and in those moments, relationships are made. You have those pauses where you can talk to each other.”
Heinz believes these relationships proved especially valuable as Jewish women moved from cramped cities into spacious suburbs after World War II, and worried about the fraying of social bonds.
“Part of it has to do with the larger demographic changes that Jewish women experienced in particularly profound ways after World War II – a rise into the middle class en masse, a really significant demographic shift where you have Jewish women who are higher educated than average with higher rates of leaving the workforce when they get married,” said Heinz. “It’s the combination of demographic shifts, historical shifts that are happening during this time, and particular patterns of Jewish communities of socializing and really the importance of Jewish Americans in forging key parts of American leisure culture in general. This all becomes a key element in how and why we have this really remarkable and wonderful growth of community around this.”