Four women sit around a table, each with a card of various numbers and colors, arranged like a secret code. Tiles are exchanged like a perfectly choreographed dance: right, across, left, then left, across, right. Tossing tiles into the middle of the table, the players call out mysterious names–“Four Crak! Three Bam! Eight Dot!”–until the winner finally shouts “Mah-jongg!”
To the uninitiated, the process is foreign. To those familiar with the game, this is just a typical evening with the girls, evenings that have been happening in America for nearly 100 years.
There’s no question that scores of Jewish women have played mah-jongg, a betting game that requires matching domino-like tiles into rummy-like patterns. From the tenements of New York City to the bungalows of the Catskills and the vast American suburbs, Jewish women have kept alive a game that otherwise fell out of fashion in the 1920s.
And yet the Jewish mah-jongg connection is hard to explain. As one Internet writer asked: “How on earth did a 19th century Chinese parlor game come to be a favorite pastime for middle-aged Jewish women?”
The Rise and Fall of Mah-jongg
Mah-jongg’s precursors may be centuries old, but the game most Americans know dates back only about 150 years. Around 1846, a servant of the Chinese emperor combined the rules of popular card games of the time, and replaced cards with tiles to create mah-jongg. The name itself means sparrows–an allusion to the pictures of birds often engraved on the tiles.
The advent of mah-jongg coincided with China’s opening to foreign traders, after the First Opium War (1837-1842). One American businessman, Joseph Babcock, traveled to China on behalf of the Standard Oil Company in 1912 and brought the game back to America. He changed the numbers on the tiles to numerals with which Americans are familiar (1, 2, 3, etc.) and by 1920, Abercrombie and Fitch, then a sporting and excursion goods store, was the first place to sell mah-jongg in America.
Throughout the 1920s, the game was a popular craze. Over time, to make the game more difficult and exciting, playing groups made up their own “table rules.” As these homemade regulations became more complex and convoluted, players eventually became turned off by the game and the challenge of ever-changing rules. By the end of the decade, the mah-jongg fad had died.