Have Yourself a Merry Little Mah Jongg
by Anneliese Dickman
This may sound funny coming from a board member of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, but to me, Mah Jongg goes hand-in-hand with Christmas. On my Christian side of the family, Christmas evening is for cocktails and Mahj around the tree. We have collected several beautiful vintage sets over the years, more than enough to have three or four tables going at once. Men, women, and teen kids all play, with winners earning bragging rights and the option to rotate to a new table.
To my Jewish family and friends, it is always a surprise to learn that this gentile girl from the foothills of Colorado plays Mah Jongg, because many Jewish players don’t know about the military’s version of the game. Both my father and grandfather had been officers in the Air Force; my mother and grandmother started playing Mahj with the other wives in their officers’ wives’ clubs. The game was so widespread among military wives in the 1930s that the wives from the Army Air Corps field in Ohio, now known as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, decided to write down the rules of play in order to “allow players to transfer from base to post to port and still play the same game.”
The Wright-Patterson book is the rulebook that my family uses, although we don’t always use the most recent edition. We prefer an older version of the book with our favorite special hands (over 100!), such as Piano Keys and Razzle Dazzle. We love to reminisce as we play—the funny names of each hand trigger memories from years past. Like the time Uncle Bill misunderstood the rules and had Mah Jongged without declaring it…and then got mad when it didn’t count. Or, the first time my pre-teen cousin Kelsey played. Her extremely competitive nature kept her usually-very-active body glued to her chair for hours until she finally declared “Mah Jongg!” Followed shortly thereafter with an exasperated, “Finally! Now I can quit playing this crazy game!” We’re pretty sure it was also Kelsey who once played with a pair of underwear on her head, trying to change her luck after drawing too many unhelpful tiles.
When I went off to college, I was delighted to find a roommate who also played Mah Jongg, but was confused when she showed me a solitaire game on her computer that bore almost no resemblance to the “real” game. I felt vindicated when a grad student from China understood my confusion and invited me to his apartment to play Mah Jongg with his family.
As it turned out, I didn’t play “real” Mah Jongg, either. Not only did the tiles in the Chinese set not have Arabic numerals, making them nearly impossible for me to decipher, there was no rulebook and no list of hands! Without a list of hands to study, the gameplay happened much faster. In fact, the game was so fast-paced, the Chinese players didn’t even take the time to look at each tile as it was drawn, they merely rubbed their thumb across each tile’s face and decided immediately whether to keep it or discard it.
Needless to say, I learned my lesson—“real” Mah Jongg is in the eye of the beholder. I find it fascinating that so many cultures and subcultures can claim versions of the game as their own, and I’m eager to learn more about Mah Jongg’s Jewish history and traditions. I’ll be taking beginner Mah Jongg lessons at the Museum this summer. I can’t wait to learn the deal with the Joker tiles. (Isn’t that cheating?) And I heard a rumor that Flowers are used in some hands. (What? They aren’t just good luck tiles that allow a second draw?) This Christmas, I might even introduce some new traditions to my family’s yuletide Mahj game.