By Martha Nodar
Surrounded by the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, every Monday afternoon four Sandy Springs residents gather around a table covered with small, carved tiles.
Diane Benatar, Jackie Benveniste, Clare Habif and Lynn Simon alternate meeting at each of their homes every week to play Mah Jongg.
On this occasion, it was Habif’s turn to host the game, which she usually holds in her kitchen overlooking her patio. A folding table is used for the game, while a small dining table serves the purpose of holding their cups.
“We taught ourselves how to play and have been meeting once a week for about a year and a half,” Habif said. “We began as players and have become friends in the process.”
“Mah Jongg is more than just a game,” Benveniste said. “It is a way to connect with each other and preserve the tradition.”
Benatar and Simon said tradition is very important, and they all agree it is this respect for tradition that draws a parallel between Chinese players and American players.
Some American women learn how to play from their elders, but most learn from their own peers. In China, children begin playing when they are school-age.
The rummy-like tile game slowly emerged after the collapse of the last Chinese imperial dynasty in 1911. But, it was not until after World War I, when Mah Jongg was brought to the U.S. and adopted by American players, especially Jewish-American women, as a way to create social bonds.
“Mah Jongg is fun and it brings something to my life,” said Sandy Springs resident Amy Arogeti. “It’s girl-time.”
Arogeti has been playing for over 10 years and said her group meets in Sandy Springs every Friday.
Mah Jongg means “the game of the sparrows,” and requires patience, strategic planning and ethics, consistent with the Chinese culture. The object of the game is to have a winning “hand,” a pre-determined set of tiles, before the other players, to keep your opponents from knowing the tiles you have and to prevent them from completing a winning hand before you do.
Each player is required to discard a card and draw another one either from those discarded by the other players on the table, or from a pile of unused tiles that sits on the side of the “dealer.”
Every April the National Mah Jongg League, which is responsible for establishing the standards of the American game, prints a new card showing the different ways to have a winning hand in order to keep the game interesting year after year.
And this offers enough variety to keep these women engaged with a precision envied by military strategists and a commitment to the Chinese rules, such as calling out a tile before disposing of it at the table. This is done out of courtesy to the other players by calling their attention to which tiles are available.
The tiles themselves are rich in culture as they are handed down to the next generation. That was the case with Atlanta native Lynda Wachsteter, who is the third generation of Jewish women in her family playing Mah Jongg.
“I remember most of my friends’ mothers and grandmothers also played,” Wachsteter said. “I think many of us love the tradition because it brings back so many memories of our mothers playing, laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of friendship.”
“I also play bridge, but Mah Jongg is much easier,” said Wachsteter’s friend Jacqueline Kleinstein. “Playing Mah Jongg is a great way to be social. After the game we discuss the books we are reading, knitting patterns, grandchildren. Camaraderie is the key.”