By Sabina Mollot
Ahuva Ellner, a Stuyvesant Town resident and hospice nurse, has, for the past several months, actively worked to spread the magic of Mah Jongg.
Though the ancient board-and-tile game has, for decades, enjoyed tremendous popularity among seniors and Jewish women (like Ellner), she’s recently noticed heightened interest from younger players. Now, she’s trying to recruit more players of all ages, at least locally.
Around Valentine’s Day, Ellner organized a game for neighbors at the Stuyvesant Town Community Center and since then has continued to organize Mah Jongg luncheons for the growing group at various locations.
For Ellner, who’s now semi-retired, the game has been part of her life since childhood, when her mother would host friends for games while vacationing in the bungalows of upstate Monticello.
“I would watch my mom and I would hear the tiles clattering. I would hear that distinctive noise of the tiles and the women calling ‘3 dot, 4 crak.’ I was mesmerized.”
Mah Jongg has some similarities to the card game rummy. The game however involves tiles instead of cards, each one in the set of 152 represented by a Chinese character or symbol. Winning is part luck, part skill with the goal being to build sets with the tiles by drawing them and discarding them.
While there are numerous ways to play, Ellner plays the American version with rules established by the National Mah Jongg League.
“A lot of people play by ‘table rules,’ where people make up their own rules and you’ll have people doing things different styles and ways,” said Ellner. “The Asian version is played with 144 tiles. They do not use jokers. We use eight jokers. In Florida, in some places they play the 14th tile, which is called peeking ahead. But I don’t like to do that. One of the basic rules is no peeking ahead. I guess I’m what could be called a purist.”
The goal of the game comes from a new card that gets issued every year, at the beginning of April, with different tile variations. Players then need to try to match those variations, Ellner explained.
Mah Jongg has roots in China, though its exact origins are unclear. Noting online reports that link the game to Confucius, Ellner said there’s a lot of conflicting, and often inaccurate information out there. “Confucius did not play Mah Jongg,” she said.
As for its arrival in the United States, and its being embraced by American Jewish women, this happened in 1920. A New York Times article on the subject noted that Mah Jongg reflected changing tastes that included a new interest in Asian interior decoration and Chinese food. The National Mah Jongg League was in fact founded by Jewish women in 1937.
As for Ellner’s own interest, she recalls being intrigued by the different names of the tiles and the relationships that formed between the women playing.
“I liked the camaraderie and the spirit and friendships and bonding that took place,” she said, “and watching my mother prepare for the group.”
This included fixing snacks ahead of time that Ellner knew were off limits as they sat, temptingly, in the fridge. “We were not allowed to touch it.”
Ellner began playing the game herself at 10 though eventually her interest waned and she forgot about it. Then recently, after her mother moved to an assisted living home, Ellner unearthed her mother’s old Mah Jongg set. At first, she figured she’d sell it on eBay, but then upon discovering the high demand for vintage sets online, “a light bulb went off,” said Ellner. “I thought, ‘I need to start playing again.’” Once off the idea of selling the set, a 1960s-era version by New York manufacturer Cardinal, she began seeking out others who were interested in the game. At first she did this by attending classes in Baldwin, New York’s Library with a reputable teacher and in Riverdale. She would later discover Mah Jongg games in Manhattan played at the Lenox Hill Senior Center on the Upper East Side.
The game has in fact become a staple at some senior centers, which isn’t surprising as studies have indicated the game has some health benefits for older people. Most notably, it’s been said to stave off dementia, due to the sensory stimulation and a demand for a bit of math skills.
“It’s not a numbers game, but you’re doing some math calculations,” Ellner said.
Another reason Ellner’s been urging the game onto neighbors is that she’s noticed some people, in particular seniors, tend to become isolated.
“We have a problem in this community of isolation, and Mah Jongg is a chance to get people to socialize,” she said. “I want to give people a sense of community and a sense of belonging and it’s something fun to do.”
That said, Ellner, now an ambitious player and Mah Jongg teacher who’s participated in tournaments, has also found herself opposite tables from women in their 20s, too.
“I think they saw their relatives, their mothers, a grandparent playing Mah Jongg,” said Ellner. “There has been a big resurgence with young people.”
While Ellner had the benefit of learning the game when very young, she insisted it’s not a tough game for adults to learn or get good at.
One way is of course by taking lessons. Another way is to play the game online. However, warned Ellner, a lot of the games online that are described as Mah Jongg are not. “They’re just matching games.” She recommends signing up for a subscription service offered by the NMJL in order to play online, which is what she does.
“I play in the evening for a couple of hours,” confessed Ellner. Currently, Ellner’s trying to organize a local tournament that would benefit veterans.
For those still on the fence about the game, it’s generally not a pricy hobby. If there’s a fee for playing a hand, it’s usually something low like 25 cents up to a couple of dollars, from what Ellner’s seen. With Ellner’s group, there’s sometimes a small participation fee for games if she has to rent the space or, when the game is being held at a restaurant, players are expected to order something.
To participate in one of the upcoming luncheons, which are for players at all levels, Ellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.