Melanie Samuels, left, and Pam Wolfman were the winners of this year’s mah jongg tournament at the JCC. (photo from JCC)
On any given day and evening across Vancouver, Jewish women are gathering in sets of four and playing mah jongg. But, until recently, only a small number considered the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver a place to play and learn the game. In December, however, the JCC began offering mah jongg tutorial classes – and more than two dozen women joined in. Friendships are being made around the table, and mah jongg is helping build a women’s social network.
This game has been passed from generation to generation, including renewed interest from younger players, some of whom remember their moms and grandmas playing the game but only now have the interest and time to learn it themselves. On Jan. 28, more than 50 women attended the first-ever mah jongg tournament at the JCC (at least the first in a very long time). The proceeds benefitted Orr Vancouver Israeli Dance School and Festival Ha’Rikud. Pam Wolfman and Melanie Samuels were the tournament winners.
So, how did this centuries-old Chinese game of tiles become such a fixture in the lives of Jewish women in North America? There is much speculation, but one fact is known: Jewish women created the National Mah Jongg League (NJML) in 1937 to create consistency in rules and hands. This stability helped the game survive and spread. Jewish organizations selling cards generate charitable donations to causes of their own choosing, a feature of the league that encourages the quest for new players. In Vancouver, local sales of the game cards generate needed funds for the food bank at Jewish Family Services.
Historically, Jewish women found mah jongg to be an inexpensive form of communal entertainment, particularly in the urban setting of New York, and the game’s popularity spread from friend to friend, mother to daughter, according to Anita Luu and Christi Cavellero’s book Mah Jongg: From Shanghai to Miami Beach. And now, younger women learning the game are getting a newfound understanding of why their mothers were so passionate about the game that they and their friends played for decades together.
Players of all levels are welcome to join Mah Jongg & Margaritas, on March 8, 7:30 p.m., at the centre. The no-admission event is underwritten by the Marion Seeklus Mah Jongg Fund, a newly established endowment for mah jongg programming at the JCC. To attend, contact Lisa Cohen Quay at 604-638-7283 or [email protected].