• Family, friendship and mahjong bring women together

    By: HOLLY MEYER, The Tennessean

    Updated:
    NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Mahjong is far more than a game to Michelle Tishler.

    It represents family and friendship.

    Tishler, a mahjong enthusiast and instructor in Nashville, finds comfort in the clinking sound of the ornately decorated tiles being shuffled on a table. It's the noise she often fell asleep to in her childhood bedroom as her mother played into the night with other women.

    Tishler now plays the rummy-like Chinese parlor game with her own friends. Their rounds of mahjong are punctuated with celebrations and commiserations of their wins and losses as well as life's major milestones and its more mundane moments.

    When Tishler was raising her now-grown children, playing mahjong was an opportunity to squeeze in time for herself and build friendships with other moms while their kids were off at school.

    "It was just a great way that a group of women could get together, share the love of the game and share the love of everyone else's lives," Tishler said. "If you talk to people that are in a mahjong group, they will adore the people they play with."

    Spreading the love of mahjong in Nashville

    Tishler is spreading her love of the game in Nashville.

    She is helping organize a special program at the Gordon Jewish Community Center on mahjong around the world. The Sept. 22 ticketed event will feature Gregg Swain, a nationally known mahjong teacher and author, who will speak about the game's history and artistry.

    Tishler also teaches mahjong classes at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. The beginner and intermediate courses draw men and women of all ages.

    Although the vast majority of the people who take Tishler's classes are not Jewish, mahjong has a strong link to Jewish culture in the U.S.

    A group of Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League and created standardized rules used in America, Tishler said. The league started in 1937 after Joseph Babcock helped popularize mahjong in the U.S. in the early 1900s, according to the National Mah Jongg League's website. The origins of the game itself are disputed.

    But every year, the National Mah Jongg League puts out a new Official Standard Hands and Rules card, which is used to play the game.

    "They meet and create 50 hands. So every year this card changes and we get new hands every year," Tishler said.

    Friendships build around the game

    On a Wednesday evening in early September, the league's 2019 cards were spread before Tishler and her five friends - all Jewish women in their 50s and 60s - as they played round after round at the Corner Pub in the Woods in Bellevue. While they share a faith tradition, their religion is not the focus; the competition and camaraderie are.

    Laughter and chatter filled the small private room at the neighborhood restaurant.

    Some of the women were new friends, some old, and some had grown up watching their mothers and aunts play the game, while others picked it up later in life.

    The game helped Jane Weiss make new friends when she moved to Nashville from Atlanta three months ago. She attended a reception for Nashville newcomers through the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee where Weiss quickly made connections with other women who played the game.

    It was such a relief, said Weiss, as she settled in to play at the Corner Pub in the Woods.

    "I had been looking for work and knew no one here," Weiss said.

    Weiss, who has played mahjong for a decade, started joining games multiple times a week in Nashville to meet more people while she searched for a job.

    "I was playing a lot more than I might ordinarily," Weiss said. "In the beginning, I would go to all of them I think just because I'd see different names on my list and go, 'That might be my new best friend.' "

    Winning is still important in this friendly competition

    While the game - and all of its pieces that can be packed into a convenient carrying case - takes on a greater meaning for many who play it, Tishler still loves mahjong for the competitive, strategic game that it is.

    Around one table at the Corner Pub in the Woods sat Tishler, her longtime mahjong-playing friend Barbara Seidman and her newer friend Susan Cohen. At the next table, three other women were playing together.

    Tishler pulled a tile from the communal stack and rested it on her rack alongside the 13 others positioned so only she could see them. In an instant, she calculated whether to keep it.

    "Five dot," said Tishler, announcing the name of the tile as she placed it in the discard pile.

    A rhythm developed as the play rotated around the table: Draw, discard, repeat.

    "Nine crak," Cohen said, ending her turn.

    "Five dot," followed Seidman.

    They simultaneously played offense and defense. The women fished for the tiles that would complete their winning hands while withholding the ones they thought would keep victory just out of reach for the other players.

    A hopeful suspense built with every turn as anticipation married with possibility.

    But then Seidman laid down a four crak - the last tile Tishler needed.

    "Mahjong!" said Tishler, as she reached for it.

    Her table mates groaned good-naturedly and handed over her winnings - 75 cents.

    "I swear I always throw her tile," Seidman said.

    They lost little time as their practiced hands quickly reset the game - ready to play again.

    ___

    Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com

    Next Up: