General Question

occ's avatar

How did mah jong become popular with Jewish women?

Asked by occ (4036points) March 3rd, 2009

I’ve noticed that many of the people who play Mah Jong are either Chinese or Jewish. Is there some kind of historical reason for this or some cultural nexus between Chinese women and Jewish women of which I’m unaware?

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20 Answers

A_Wood's avatar

…That’s nice….

MacBean's avatar

You know what? I once wrote a character who liked to play Mah Jong solitaire, and one of my friends laughed at me and was like, “What is he, an old Jewish woman?!” I was so confused. I had never heard (or noticed) that trend before. I thought she was crazy. But maybe not…?

Allie's avatar

I like Mah Jong. I’m neither Chinese nor Jewish.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

~follows the thread~

I have definitely noticed that! I don’t play Mah Jong, but my friends who do tell me that they play different versions.

Actually now that I think about it, even in the movie version of The Joy Luck Club (whose screenplay was written by Amy Tan) they acknowledge the association. The thin woman, I believe June’s mother (?) says at one point that the Chinese version is more complicated and takes more skill than the Jewish version.

A_Wood's avatar

Oh dear. I mistook that question horribly. Please excuse my stupidity.

Allie's avatar

@A_Wood Hahahahahahahahahahhah!!! If I’m thinking what you are, that is hilarious.

MacBean's avatar

LURVE. I’ll never play Mah Jong Quest quite the same way again, I don’t think.

A_Wood's avatar

@Allie Yeah, you’re more than likely thinking what I’m thinking… I’m an idiot haha.

eponymoushipster's avatar

ooo a dick joke.

cwilbur's avatar

The real version of mah-jongg—not the computer solitaire version—was a fad in the US in the 1920s. Think of what happened with Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary in the 1980s. Everybody was playing it, and it fit in perfectly with the fad for chinoiserie.

Why current players are predominantly Jewish—I have no idea.

omfgTALIjustIMDu's avatar

Great question!! All of my grandmothers and great aunts and cousins (Jewish women) play Mah Jong, and are very disappointed that I have not bothered learning. I really never thought about how the two would find each other.

srmorgan's avatar

Being the sharp young kid, my grandmother, Jewish of course, taught me the game at about the age of ten and sometimes I “sat in” during the summer at the bungalow colony or on Mah Jongg night at her apartment which was just down the street from us.

I have no sense of comparison to how it is played by Chinese women. The version my grandmother and the other ladies paid resembled gin rummy more than anything else. Every year there was a new card from the Mah Jongg association (?) which had the 40 or 50 legitimate hands that you could win with that year. Most of the hands did not change each year but there was some variation.

You could have 5 players with one woman (participant) sitting out each hand, making coffee, cutting cake, whatever. And she could also be the KIBITZER.

I have to back up here, the game was played by mixing all the tiles, face down and then putting them against your rack as if they were bricks in a wall. And then you would pick tiles in order and announce what tile you had picked: 5 Bam, 3 crack, whatever. This also encouraged lots of side conversations amongst the players and the KIBITZER which was probably the whole point of getting together in the first place.

It was a way to sit down and YAK or as we called it “Yenting” or being a Yenta. A gossip, a teller of tales.

I think that is why the game was so attractive. A chance to sit and talk with the other Bubbies and Tantehs or your friends or your Landsmann and keep occupied while you socialized.

For the non-Jews who read this:

Tanteh—aunt or in my case usually great-aunt
Landsman—someone who emigrated from the same region in Europe that you emigrated from. It might be a town or a bigger region. By mid-century it could also mean someone you lived with in the Bronx before you moved to Boca Raton.

Kibitzer- one who kibitzes

Kibitz – make comments about everyone else at the table, nothing nasty, frequently sarcastic or ironic.


omfgTALIjustIMDu's avatar

@srmorgan, I lol4rled. Thanks for the cohesive, intelligent, yiddishkei-filled explanation :)

srmorgan's avatar


I really wish I knew more Yiddish. My grandmother was born in NY but grew up speaking Yiddish until she started elementary school. My grandfather came from Poland. So my mother learned Yiddish to speak to her own grandparents.
My father’s parent, although also of Aschkenazy descent, were born and grew up in the UK so my Dad was not exposed to Yiddish.

So as in many homes, they used Yiddish when they did not want us to hear what they were talking about.

My friends of Italian extraction in the Bronx dealt with the same situation, Italian so the kids wouldn’t hear what was going on.
The kids with parents from Ireland were a little luckier in that one respect.


omfgTALIjustIMDu's avatar

Yep, we had the same grandparents-speaking-Yiddish-when-they-didn’t-want-us-to-understand-what-they-were-saying. But it’s okay because we did it back to them in Hebrew :)

AdamOnDemand's avatar

My theory: In NYC the Jewish immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side was near/next to Chinatown. Not only did Jewish immigrants pick up the Mahjong craze in the 1920s, but they could actually watch games on the streets, play native Chinese players, and easily buy Mahjong sets all just a few blocks from home. Just as the Jews of the classical era and the ancient and sophisticated Greek culture had a mutual fascination, so do the Jews and Chinese—and the complicating distractions of Christianity don’t necessarily intervene, or even play much of a role. What other ethnicity has constructed religious items out of Chinese cultural items, like Mahjong tiles? In NYC today, what has become the Christmas tradition for Jews: to go out for Chinese food and a movie. Nowadays, that includes friends who are Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Muslims and other non-Christians. It’s a pleasure to be able to escape sometimes overbearing Christian superculture in the USA.

kiawahbarb8's avatar

I will tell you the reason. First of all Mahjongg is NOT a Jewish game, nor is it that matching tile game that you see online. One of the answers above is very close to the truth in how Mahjongg became associated with Jewish women. yes, on the lower East side of Manhattan you have a melting pot of cultures. Chinese men (women played in their apartments) would play on the street, and Jewish woman who lived in the same neighborhood would watchi in fascination. They would eventually learn the Chinese version of Mahjongg. In 1937 a group of 7 German-Jewish women, who loved the chinese game developed their own style of playing combining several of the different aspects of the game. They developed a card with the approved hands that could be played. This began the National Mahjongg League, an organization that used the money they got from the cost of the card to help certain groups, namely ..or largely Jewish women’s group such as ORT, or Haddassah. THIS is why many people believe it is a “jewish” game. I have been playing 38 years, I teach Mahjongg and have taught well over 100 people to play. How many jews in that group…not more than a handful. The game is now more popular than ever, with many of the young girls wanting to play the game their “grandmothers” played. Their own mothers too busy with jobs to play games.
During the 40’s and 50’s many jewish women would escape the heat of the city and drive up to the Catskill where they would stay during the week, and their husbands would join them on weekends. During the week they played many games of Mahjongg. Many friendships were formed over the tiles and mahjongg became the game to play among this particular group.
The game is now larger than it has every been. It is a marvelous game, with much socializing being done. I am thrilled that my jewish Friends taught me to play, and that my Jewish Mother in law was a help to me in learning this game. I have now taught my 3 grandson’s…at the age of 3, 7, 9 how to play. They are playing two years and my youngest even has his own mahjongg set. My daughter plays as well as all her friends (I taught them) and they enjoy the camrandiere that comes from such a social game. Long Live Mahjongg is a wonderful game to enjoy for your entire life.
Barbara Berger
Kiawah Island, SC

ma's avatar

i dont know about the origins of mj as a jewish woman’s game in the U.S. but a nice jewish woman gave my friends and me several lessons and i sent her the following poem of appreciation- see 8 paragraphs below.

Dear Sophie,

Yes, it’s true
We are indebted to you!
For your willingness and brave heart
to teach us a game that is
fun, savvy and smart.

Sophie, you are the Mah Jongg Master
and will to try to keep Anne, Dorit, Edith, Rose and Sue
out of gaming disaster.

Instructing us of the rules
is not an easy task
and takes a lot of

With your patience
we will endeavor
to find our way through, bams, cracks, winds and dragons
and hope we won’t
fall off our sanity wagons.

This stuff is new to us
But in twenty years
You will be proud since
we will be
up to snuff.

Mah Jongg will lead us to plenty of laughs
for the rest of our lives
So it’s a mitzvah
to show us how to
make a mah jongg Charleston pass.

Thank you Sophie
It’s been a delight
to have you make us tile just

Hip -hip hooray to Sophie today!
From Dorit

Fielder's avatar

A slight correction to something mentioned above by someone: The Chinese version is much simpler rules than the American version. The HKOS (Hong Kong Old Style) being especially easy of all the Chinese versions.

The Japanese version is also harder than the Chinese (the Chinese is the original version).

The American version is different as mentioned above, the yearly rules changes of special hands on the yearly card that must be purchased from the Association.

Also, American version has jokers (special Joker tiles) which are wild.

And the American version has the Charleston move (sounds like 1920’s dancing!).

Interesting to learn about the proximity of Chinatown to Jewish section of NYC being reason for popularity with that culture!

In 1922 the imports of the game started, and by 1925 the bottom fell out of the fad. The Pung Chow corporation that had just purchased 2 large factories a couple years earlier to make tiles went bankrupt. This crash in popularity meant middle America never got too much of a chance to even see the Mahjong. The imports from China landed in San Francisco and from there shipped to the biggest local stores in chain department stores like Macy’s and Gimbals. The largest stores were in NYC. So SF and NYC got the best shot at seeing Mahjong before the crash in popularity.

By the way it was a special circumstance that allowed Joseph Babcock to finally convince a corporation to put up money to begin importing the game tiles from Japan. This was because Babcock was vacationing in Santa Catalina Island off the city of Los Angeles.

In 1919 there was no radio stations to hear the news. And no telegraph on Catalina. Once a week a ship would arrive with newspapers. The post office delivered mail to Catalina by carrier pigeon!

Therefore the culture among all the retired people living on Catalina was to devour the local newspaper for any hints of the stock market, world news, and especially the society page to read about locals giving dinner parties. And especially any new locals arriving that might be giving and going to dinner parties: somebody new and interesting, anything or anybody ‘new’ was news, and they craved news because there was so very little news.

So the local Catalina newspaper society editors rushed to the newly arriving Babcock and wife, and Babcock got out the tiles to show off to them. Since every local read the paper cover to cover, everyone there saw the article and pictures of the tiles. And saw where Babcock had offered to mail back a set of tiles to anyone who paid in advance. Babcock was the head of the Shanghai dept. of Standard Oil which is why he was headed back to China.

So when he left Catalina to SF, he had hundreds of paid requests from individuals wanting tiles resulting from a single newspaper article. This convinced a local businessman that Mahjong might sweep into America and there was quick money to be made. The Mahjong Sales company of San Francisco was formed right there and Babcock was given large funds to buy all the tiles he could have made in China and mail them to SF warehouse where they were packaged in fancy boxes. This was 1922.

So the particular isolation of Catalina giving a greatly exaggerated response to Babcock’s newspaper article was the break that setup the fad to happen.

Vanity Fair had one type of article or another every month about Mahj for a year. Life had a picture of a couple playing Mahjong on the cover in 1924. For a couple years the game was King, and then it all collapsed the next year!

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