'Ay ya!' meets 'oy vey!': Project Mah Jongg explores love for China's game among Jewish-Americans

Lifestyle | by David Perry
Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Updated: April 19th, 2011 | Comments
Wet flappers spiel 麻將 in the time of the Great Gatsby and speakeasies. If you're in the US and eager to visit China but just can't make it at the moment, fret not!  You can get a feel for a typical Shanghai summer evening by hitting the Catskills or Brighton Beach... or pretty much any traditional summer resort favored by New York's Jewish-American families. As the New York Times reports, the clacking of 麻將 (mahjong) tiles is sweet music not only to the ears of Shanghai tai tais playing a few dozen evening rounds or so on a sidewalk in their summer PJs, but also to proverbial Jewish mothers schmoozing and schwitzing on Atlantic Beach. And it's been going on for a long time. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC's LES has an amazing-looking exhibit up through the end of the year documenting the popularity of the game: Project Mah Jongg (complete with a fantastic website and beautiful photos). Hit the museum for the exhibit, pop on over to Chinatown for lunch (and perhaps start planning a trip to China... pencil in Beijing's Mah-jong Workshop on your itinerary while you're at it). It's the next best thing to a ramble through Beijing's hutong, Shanghai's shikumen, or any other corner of a Chinese city or town, whether picturesque or workaday-mundane. We'd love to see these women get together.  Could such  nice New York Jewish ladies as these compete with Shanghai's toughest tai tais?  Judging from the banter among Silver Beach, NY mahjong die-hards transcribed by the Times' Joseph Berger, they'd certainly hold their own when it comes to the all-important matter of in-game chatter:

"This is what I live for," said Mrs. Cohen, 63, of Valley Stream. "I love mah-jongg and I love the beach and I play with a great group of friends. What could be bad?" [...]

“It’s so shvakh,” groaned Ms. Mingelgreen, 52, using the Yiddish word for weak, as she surveyed the tiles she drew.

“This is horrible,” Mrs. Cohen echoed, lamenting hers. “What should I do?”

“I can’t tell you what to do,” Mrs. Mingelgreen replied, tartly. “I can tell you what I would do.”

They quibble over the bets, which tend to be for trifling sums — $10 is the limit for the day. But the winnings accumulate — Mrs. Cohen used two years of winnings to buy a flat-screen TV — and arguing is part of the fun. They even argue about arguing. “We argue a lot,” said Ms. Mingelgreen.

“No, we don’t,” retorted Mrs. Cohen. “We discuss.”

Translate into the sharp tones of Shanghaihua and you've got a perfect match.... Fantasies of a World Cup of Mahjong aside (or at least annual Pajama and Cabana Mahjong Invitationals), it's fascinating to see that China's favorite game has a history among Jewish-Americans. It's another of many links connecting two of the world's oldest and most continuous cultures--consider, for instance, the Jews of Kaifeng (whose story is documented at the Kaifeng Museum), the legacy of the Sassoons of Shanghai, or the fascinating Jewish heritage sites still standing in Shanghai as testament to the sanctuary the city provided for fugitives from the Nazis (the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is a great place to start for more on this). Finally, if you do make it to China and want to explore Jewish heritage in the Middle Kingdom, consider starting out in Shanghai: You can stay at the newly renovated Peace Hotel (once the Sassoon House, named after Jewish business kingpin Victor Sassoon)  and take a Shanghai Jewish heritage tour. From Shanghai, it's an easy flight to Zhengzhou with overland connections to nearby Kaifeng.
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