It is a well-known joke that Jews have a particular affinity for Chinese food, especially on a certain legal holiday in December. But there is another surprising connection of American-Jewish and Chinese cultures. In honor of National Games Week, Jewish Treats presents the Jewish side of Mah Jongg.

Originally a card game, Mah Jongg took its current tile form around the mid-1800s when it was a popular parlor game in China. The game is similar to Rummy in that teams aim to build winning sets by drawing or discarding tiles.

The modern American version of Mah Jongg dates to the 1920s, when anything from the Far East was seen as exotic. As local groups modified rules, each to their own preference, the game became complicated and thus fell out of favor…but not with American Jewish women. Playing Mah Jongg together had given them a perfect social venue. Many synagogues and Jewish women’s organizations hosted regular game nights, often adding a small financial component, the winnings of which were donated to tzedakah (charity).

In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was create by a group of Jewish women. The league standardized rules and set up annual lists of winning combinations. While it is focused on Mah Jongg, it is often defined as a Jewish women’s organization.

Generations of Jewish women have played the game. Indeed, it was an intricate part of the social structure of summer during the heyday of the Catskills, when the men remained in the city all week. Many American Jews have fond memories of  their female relatives pulling out their Mah Jongg tiles at family gatherings or hearing about Mah Jongg clubs.

While the game fell out of favor for a generation or so, it has seen an unexpected resurgence in popularity over the last few years.

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