Cleveland-area women help mah jongg game live on

MICHAEL O'MALLEY The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer Published:

BEACHWOOD, Ohio (AP) -- It's midday in the lobby of Embassy Suites and the mah jongg ladies, filling a cluster of four-top tables near a display of live plants and a manmade waterfall, are busy slapping down bams, dots and dragons.

At one table, four regular Wednesday players are deep in concentration, studying numbers and symbols on the mah jongg tiles -- craks, bams, dots, dragons, flowers, soaps, jokers and winds -- each player trying to build a winning hand.

The constant shish of the waterfall mixes with sounds of clicking tiles and jangling bracelets as the foursome's fingers -- nails polished bright red -- quickly pick up and discard, one lady hoping for a joker, another needing a "2 bam."

There is little talk at this table, but Helene Kaufman, 82, of Beachwood, can no longer hold her tongue.

"You've got schmutz on your mouth," she tells Barbara Winter, 77, of Mayfield.

Winter fingers her lip, wiping away a dab of chocolate from free cookies offered daily to the mah jongg players by the hotel's restaurant, CJ's American Bar & Grill.

Iced tea and coffee are also on the house. And sometimes banana cream pie.

It's CJ's show of appreciation to the dozens of mah jongg ladies who lunch at the restaurant every weekday before taking their places near the atrium waterfall for an afternoon of mah jongg, an ancient Chinese game similar to the card game rummy but played with domino-size tiles.

"They're fun ladies," said CJ's manager Aaron Zanders, 27. "It's like having 100 of my grandmothers here."

Mah jongg was introduced in the United States a century ago and has been kept alive for generations by Jewish women, a phenomenon no one can fully explain.

Some play "maajh" at each other's homes. Others play in hotel lobbies, shopping mall food courts, municipal recreation centers, country clubs, book stores or synagogue social halls.

They play at Heinen's grocery store on South Green Road in University Heights, Park Synagogue in Pepper Pike and the Eton Chagrin Boulevard shopping mall in Woodmere.

Diehards might even take a maajh cruise in the Caribbean. "Seven days, all women," says Kaufman. "New Yawkers. They'll kill you."

At a recent game at the Solon home of Stacy Bauer, 48, she is joined by friends Marcy Fisher, 51, of Orange, Stacy Edelstein, 44, also of Orange, and Lauren Spilman, 47, of Moreland Hills.

A tablecloth with maajh symbols covers a card table. Each woman carries a maajh purse that holds cash -- they play for quarters and dimes -- and the official rules card issued by the National Mah Jongg League.

The card lists dozens of winning combinations among three suits -- dots, bams and craks. Players pick up, discard and pass tiles to each other trying to match a hand on the card. Players can't see each other's tiles or know what hands the other players are attempting to build.

The combinations can get complicated. And once a player's tiles form a winning hand, she shouts "Maajh!" and collects the change.

Bauer and her friends, who learned the game as kids from their mothers and grandmothers, started playing seriously 10 years ago.

"I called them up and said, 'I know you guys think this is really queer, but let's start playing maajh,' " recalls Bauer.

The foursome once got together for an overnight at the swanky Walden Inn in Aurora, playing maajh in their pajamas until dawn.

"It's addictive," says Bauer.

But why is the addiction so strong among Jewish women?

"I have been trying for years to get the answer to that question," says Judi Feniger, executive director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. "No one really knows."

In 1912, Joseph Babcock, a representative of the Standard Oil Co., doing business in the Orient, brought the game to the United States. Somehow, it caught on in New York City's Jewish ghettos, migrated to Jewish vacation spots in the Catskill Mountains and eventually spread to suburban America, where it flourishes today.

"It's like a subculture," says Feniger.

Chinese still play the game, though it's very different from the one played by Jewish women, who have adopted different rules over the years.

The Maltz museum is hosting a mah jongg exhibit that runs through April 22. It features history, photographs, a video and antique game sets with elaborately decorated ivory, bone, Bakelite and ebony tiles.

The exhibit includes a number of activities, including lessons, a tournament and a bus trip to Li Wah Chinese restaurant in Cleveland for a backroom, cross-culture game.

"The game is an interesting combination of skill and luck," says Feniger.

But win or lose, it's the camaraderie that makes maajh fun.

Under the palm trees at the Embassy Suites, the games and gossip often go deep into the afternoon.

Recently, the Embassy ladies had an unexpected visitor -- a turtle the size of an eggplant crawled out of a pool below the waterfall and worked its way through the mah jongg tables.

A hotel worker put it back in the water, but 10 minutes later, the reptile was back at the ladies' feet.

A bigger turtle, the size of a soccer ball, sometimes shows up during the games. The ladies call him Charlie.

"I saw him one day heading for the ladies' restroom," says Marlene Gordon, 73, of Beachwood.

Sometimes the four-legged creatures startle the ladies, but on this day Naomi Seligman, 77, of South Euclid, is unfazed by a turtle at her feet. She's too busy working the tiles and too frustrated with the loser hand she's holding.

The woman on her left has been discarding some of the tiles she needs, but the other players are grabbing them before Seligman can. "I'm going to kill this broad," she says.

At the next table, Sue Forman, 64, of Mayfield Heights, is a newcomer to the Embassy games. "When you're retired you think you've got a lot of time on your hands," she says. "But you really don't because you're playing maajh all the time."

A few tables down, Barb Kupps, 60, of Moreland Hills, and Shelley Stahlman, 60, of South Euclid, had played together at a Chinese restaurant in University Heights when they were teenagers.

Now, after raising their kids, they have rejoined the subculture.

"It brings back good memories of our childhood when we had no cares, no worries," says Stahlman, slapping down a 2 crak.

Kupps, picking up a 6 bam, adds, "Making new friends and keeping old ones, that's what maajh is all about."


Information from: The Plain Dealer,