America’s Other Pastime

Long associated with older women, the game is seeing a bit of a resurgence among younger generations, what Pinkert described as “nostalgia for a game that entered Jewish life as nostalgia.”

In Brooklyn, the game is gaining a foothold with the hipster crowd. Last week, the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club (not your grandmother’s shuffleboard — think food trucks, drinks served in mason jars and Converse sneakers) announced it would be launching 6 p.m. to midnight Monday Night MahJong.

In Baltimore, the newest convert is 9-year-old Bellina Sargo, who attended the Jewish Museum’s event with her dad, Rich Sargo.

“I played on the computer before, so I thought I was going to come down here and dominate,” said Rich Sargo. “I could not have been more wrong.”

Bellina, however, was enjoying dominating the table, even helping other players learn the basics.

Though she still prefers the computer version of the game, when asked whether she thinks the real game is easy, Bellina replied, “a little bit.”

Newcomer Fred Shoken disagreed.

“See? I’ve got a nice straight here,” he said, pointing to his tiles in exasperation. Much to his despair, in mah jongg, there are no straights.

One table over, Cheryl Gottlieb was playing with mah jongg newcomer Susan Jones and experienced sisters Marlene Pachino and Edie Shlian, who began playing in their 20s with friends and neighbors, though neither can quite remember how they first learned.

Gottlieb, who attended the event to get some playing time in, began playing with her mother when she was just 14 years old.

After undergoing major surgery in eighth grade, “I was watching too much TV, and she wanted me to start using brain cells,” said Gottlieb, now 29. “I don’t think I was ever in the typical age range.”

For Shlian and Pachino, the game was an escape from day-to-day life.

“You’re so busy talking, sometimes you lose track,” said Shlian.

“The best part was having little chips and dip and all that food,” recalled Pachino of the years when she and friends used to get together to play on a near-weekly basis. “It was more of a social event.”

For the women of the East Columbia 50+ Senior Center, the game is far more competitive.

“Even though it’s a drop-in, you have to be good,” said Adrienne Gordon of the twice-weekly four-hour games. “I have a hard time playing with a beginner.”

Most of the women at the center have been playing since they were children.

“I don’t remember ever learning,” said Elaine Rogers. “I think I was born playing.”

Growing up in Brooklyn, she said, all the women in her neighborhood played mah jongg and the men played pinochle.

Through years of playing, the women have seen some changes to their favorite game.

“Years ago, it was only Jewish women [who played],” said Lila Letow. “Now it’s not.”

Out of the four games a week Rogers plays in, she said she is the only Jew in two of them. But others have heard about a new interest in the game among the younger generations.

“I’ve been wanting to teach my girls for years, and they’re not interested” said Letow, echoing a sentiment shared by more than one of her mah jongg partners.

Soon though, she could have some new competition in the form of her granddaughter and her husband, who have both asked her to teach them to play — that is, if they can play on her level.

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