Jewish FAQ: Mahjong: Jewish Meets Chinese

Recently, while on vacation, I purchased an antique mahjong set. I
have yet to learn the game, but my sister, who has become a participant
in a weekly game, said she would teach me. 
My mother, who passed away last December, played twice a week, during
the past few years. My great aunt was also a fan of the game, and had her
own set (with ivory tiles; mine are wood), which unfortunately got lost after
she died.
While the familial connection is an important one to me, I’ve always been
intrigued by this game which crossed the seemingly unconnected cultures of
Chinese to Jewish. How on earth did that happen?
Calling for four players using 152 tiles to make matches and sequences, 
this Chinese game of skill and chance has deep roots in the American-
Jewish lifestyle dating back to the 1920s. It also points to parallels between 
Jews and Chinese.
“The relationship between American Jews and Chinese-Americans is a very interesting one,” says Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.
“Most of the direction of the affection seems to go from American Jews being interested in Chinese culture, but there’s a mutual feeling that Jewish and Chinese cultures are both very old world cultures with deep, long-held traditions.”
Much of the interest from American Jews in Chinese culture began in the 1920s, when mahjong swept the US because of widespread interest in the “mysticism” of the East, which also made Chinese food popular. 
Mahjong ultimately faded from popular American culture, but both mahjong and Chinese food have remained popular mainstays of Jewish-American tradition.
It’s fascinating to see that China’s favorite game has a history among 
Jewish-Americans. It’s another of many links connecting two of the world’s oldest and most continuous cultures. For instance, there are the Jews of Kaifeng, the legacy of the Sassoons of Shanghai, and the Jewish heritage sites still standing in Shanghai as testament to the sanctuary the city provided from the Nazis.
“What’s the difference between Jewish and Chinese mah jong?” the 
protagonist of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” asks her mother about 
the quintessential Chinese game. Her mother replies, “Entirely different 
kind of playing…. Jewish mah jong, they watch only for their own tile, 
play only with their eyes.”
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