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Brooklyn’s Jews have a Love Affair with Mah Jongg

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Mah jongg! That’s the call of a winning hand! Since the 1920s, the game of mah jongg has ignited the popular imagination with its beautiful tiles, mythical origins, and communal spirit. Come learn the history and meaning of the beloved game that became a Jewish-American tradition.

Mah jongg is much more than a game: it is a carrier of fantasy, identity, memory, and meaning. Three bam, two dot, flower, five crack, dragons, winds! The tiles, lined up against racks as four players sit around card tables concentrating heavily on making a viable hand and winning the game.

From early 20th century Shanghai, where Jewish men and women first began playing to Brooklyn, mah jongg is a popular game played in senior citizen centers, community centers and in private homes, mah jongg.  The game spread to the United States., becoming extremely popular among Jews from New York to California. The American version is slightly different than the Chinese. American sets have 152 tiles in four suits. In the early days, tiles were made of ivory, then bakelight and today different plastics and materials are used. The rules of the game are determined by the National Mah Jongg Association.

Jewish actors like Eddie Cantor and Woody Allen refer to their mothers playing mah jongg.

The game is so popular that the Museum of Jewish Heritage sponsored Project Mah Jongg,  an exhibit about the game that was so popular it had to be extended and is now on a national tour. Museum Director David Marwell said the Museum was surprised by how popular the Mah Jongg exhibit was and that items related to it were the highest selling in the Museum Gift Shop.

Mah jongg has become a national pastime. There are tournaments held all over the country, and cruises devoted to mah jongg. Unlike the seriousness of chess or bridge, mah jongg is seductive, its tiles lure you to the table.

Brooklyn Region and Park Slope Hadassah held the first ever Brooklyn Mah Jongg Tournament in April. 2013 The event drew serious Mah Jongg players from all over Brooklyn.  Most players that enter tournaments usually have to travel to New Jersey or Long Island. Players were grateful for a local tournament and played according to national Mah Jongg League rules. There was popular demand for mah jongg classes. One registrant said, “Wherever I go everyone plays mah jongg. I have to learn so I can be part of my social group.”


Upcoming Mah Jongg Events in Brooklyn:

Beginner Mah Jongg Class – July 9, 2013 at 7 – 9:30 pm: Learn Mah Jongg (limited to 20 students). East Midwood Jewish Center ($20) Coffee and Cake. Hadassah will sell Mah Jongg cards at an additional charge with registration.

Beginner Mah Jongg Class – September 17 at 2-4:30: Learn Mah Jongg  (limited to 20 students). East Midwood Jewish Center ($20) Coffee and Cake. Hadassah will sell Mah Jongg cards at an additional charge with registration.

Mah Jongg Tournament – Sunday, November 24, East Midwood Jewish Center, 9 am – 5 pm ($45)

To register, go  to