An otherwise sleepy room in the New Paltz Jewish Community Center bustled with laughter, idle threats, gentle trash talking and a curious clicking akin to the sound of dominos falling over on Monday afternoon.
Two tables with four players were rapt, transfixed with the strategy of what to do next with tiles adorned by Chinese ideographs, multicolored dragons, the cardinal directions and the seasons. Outnumbered by women 8-to-1, Artie Raphael cracks wise when the ladies apologize for slipping into girl-talk mode.
Raphael laughs. “I just like being here with the beautiful ladies,” he said. Like a lot of players of this Eastern game — its rules most closely resemble rummy — its intense strategy and challenge appealed to him. Raphael, after all, had been a chess player.
“It’s good for the mind,” he explained.
Marion DuBois, one of the four playing at the table with Raphael, said she thought pretty much anyone could learn to play the game. She had a simpler reason for playing. “It’s just fun,” she said.
The game is mah-jongg, and in this case the stakes are non-existent. While mah-jongg can be a gambling game in the East, games at the Jewish Community Center are played for fun only. Our area’s mah-jongg players form a tight-knit clique. They know each other, are often friends and one game likely has ties to another.
“To some people it’s become like a lifeline,” explained Susan Stessin-Cohn, who helped start the mah-jongg group with her mother Elaine Stessin. “There’s a social element.”
As a mother-daughter team, Susan and Elaine have taught many others locally how to play the game that originally hails from China. Elaine especially is held in reverence by the other players as something of a grand master.
As a teenager in the 1940s, she remembers getting pulled into a game in the neighborhood. A group of ladies were looking for a fourth to start a game. Elaine at first declined, saying the game was for old ladies. But she relented and mah-jongg became a passion that has spanned nearly her entire life.
“I’ve played off and on for over 60 years,” she said. “And I’ve taught lots of people.”
The story of mah-jongg in America has been closely linked to the story of the Jewish diaspora, but also has ties to the Hasbrouck family, the Hudson Valley and, oddly enough, the store Abercrombie & Fitch. Ezra Fitch, a lawyer from Kingston, was one of the founders of Abercrombie & Fitch — a brand now mostly known as a trendy clothing store in the mall. Back in the 1910s, Abercrombie & Fitch was known more as a high-end sports store selling safari and adventure gear, along with archery, skin-diving and skiing equipment.
Fitch, a devotee of the game, made sure that his stores sold mah-jongg sets, with instructions translated into English. Eventually, as it gained in cult popularity, the Chinese game took off among Jewish American women. Fitch also happened to be a direct descendant of New Paltz patentee Jean Hasbrouck, albeit six generations down the line.
In the World War II era — after 20-odd years of Abercrombie & Fitch importing and selling as many mah-jongg sets as a Western company possibly could — is where Elaine’s story picks up. In many Jewish families, the clack of mah-jongg tiles brings back fond memories.
“For a lot of us, we’d be like a child in bed sleeping, you’d hear the sounds of the tiles,” Susan said.