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Memoir tells the story of Long Island mah-jongg sisterhood

Fern Bernstein of Melville with her book, "Mah

Fern Bernstein of Melville with her book, "Mah Jongg Mondays," at her home in Melville on Nov. 4. Credit: Barry Sloan

It’s 11 a.m. on a Monday. Fern Bernstein and four of her friends are seated at a card table in the kitchen of her Melville home. They are about to start their weekly mah-jongg session.

The women shuffle “tiles” that are piled on the table. As the game proceeds, players call out the names of tiles they have taken from the pile. “Two Bam!” “Four Crak!” “Nine Dot.” The game ends when the winner shouts exultantly: “Mah-jongg!”  

Bernstein and other mah-jongg enthusiasts say such exclamations are ringing out across Long Island as fans of the game gather in homes, libraries, senior citizen and community centers, churches, temples, restaurants and even some supermarkets to enjoy the ancient Chinese game.  

“Mah-jongg has become a craze here on Long Island,” said Bernstein, 52, an “avid” mah-jongg player. “The game is loved by so many. Mah-jongg captures the heart of everyday Long Islanders, both women and men.”

So captivated is Bernstein by the game that she wrote and self-published in April a memoir: “Mah Jongg Mondays," as “a window” into the growth of the “Chinese-inspired gaming phenomenon” on the Island. She relates her love for the game and friendships formed at her mah-jongg table, where players have fun even as they “share their lives with each other, the good times, the happy times, the bad times and the sad times.”    

“Mah-jongg sisterhoods and brotherhoods are forming every day,” Bernstein said, “I love the fact it’s so popular on Long Island.”

“It’s very popular,” agreed Fern Rubin, of Melville, a mah-jongg instructor who explained that the game originated in China 2,000 years ago as “a man’s gambling game.” She has been teaching it for several years in various temples, adult-education classes and private groups. She taught the game to Bernstein and others in Bernstein’s mah-jongg group.

More and more games

“The old Chinese tile game is alive and thriving here on Long Island 100 years after it was brought to New York,” Rubin said. “Compared to 2013, when I taught Fern Bernstein, the size and frequency of the classes have quadrupled … Classes fill up quickly, and waiting lists are commonplace. I am getting more and more requests for private classes held in students’ homes.”

Rubin and Bernstein said mah-jongg bridges the generations as more women of all ages are playing, another reason for the increase on Long Island, they said. “Women in their 20s and 30s are finding interest in mah-jongg,” Bernstein said. “Some are being introduced to it at their children’s preschools or through their mothers or friends.”

Women in their 40s to 80s, and some in their 90s, are playing, they said. Some reaching their 100th birthday are keeping their love for the game alive and teaching it to their daughters and granddaughters.

Said to be similar to gin rummy, mah-jongg is described as a game of skill, strategy and calculation. “It’s a game of mental gymnastics,” Bernstein said.

The game has many variations. People in the United States play the American version, usually with four players, two dice and 152 tiles. The tiles have Chinese characters or symbols reflecting aspects of Chinese life. Some have numbers and names like Bam, Crak, Dot. Some reflect jokers, dragons and winds.

Mah-jongg was introduced to the United States in the 1920s by Joseph Babcock, an American businessman who worked in China, Rubin said. In 1937 a group of women formed a National Mah Jongg League — based in Manhattan — that standardized the rules and promotes the game.

Each year the league — which has 400,000 members nationwide — issues a mah-jongg card showing several combinations of 14 tiles. Players try to be the first to match perfectly one of the combinations on the card.

“Strategy, skill, memory and luck all need to weave together to make a winning hand and enable a player to enthusiastically call out ‘Mah-jongg!’ ” Bernstein said.

“In our classes … women support other women as they challenge themselves to learn different aspects and levels of the game,” Rubin said. “It takes time to master the various strategies and intricacies … A sense of pride is always heard in the voice of the player declaring mah-jongg!”

Eileen Der Aris, 49, of Dix Hills, a life coach and teacher of children with disabilities, was one of the first players in Bernstein’s group. “For most of us who are mothers and grandmothers, it gives a special meaning to all of us knowing that this game has been played for generations,” Der Aris said. But there is more to mah-jongg than the exhilaration players feel and the satisfaction they get from “creating order out of chaos — the mayhem of an array of jumbled tiles,” according to Bernstein. “Chaos is the random tiles, and sometimes life is random. We don’t have the ability to always fix the crazy scenarios we have in life, but in the game of mah-jongg you can create order out of chaos,” she said.

Marrying mind, emotions

“On the surface mah-jongg is a mind sport,” Bernstein added. “It stimulates our brains and our hearts at the same time. But below the surface magical things happen around tables and between players. Weekly mah-jongg games provide sisterhood and friendship where bonds of trust and loyalty are formed. Players discuss vacations, new jobs, recent promotions.  

“They also share heartbreak, the loss of a loved one; a divorce; the loss of a job; and dating disasters; problems with husbands or children,” she said. “Sometimes therapy sessions and heartfelt conversations organically occur around mah-jongg tables.” Bernstein credits that kind of “sharing” as a “lure” drawing Long Islanders to the game.

Bernstein, 52, who teaches yoga to preschoolers and religion classes for fourth- and fifth-graders at Temple Beth Torah in Melville, formed her mah-jongg group in August 2013. She found solace in her group when her husband, Leonard, 51, a Russian immigrant carrying on a family textile business in Maspeth, Queens, was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He remains in treatment, she said.

“Weekly escapes around the mah-jongg table helped me cope and get through his treatments,” Bernstein said. “It brought me comfort, fun and a mental break from the cancer and the unpredictable circumstance my family was in.”

At the same time some players were dealing with loss of spouses and other family members to the disease. “We are four strong pillars for one another,” Bernstein said. “We are four friends playing a Chinese game together here on Long Island, but we’re playing through the game of life at the same time. Mah-jongg has become an anchor in my life.”

Bernstein’s book, “Mah Jongg Mondays,” was written, she says, “to share my story and my love for mah-jongg; not just the beauty of the tiles, but also the beauty of bringing women together and dealing with serious challenges. Mondays have become a day I cherish every week because of this game and these wonderful women”

“We learn from each other as women, mothers, daughters, wives and friends,” Bernstein said. “Sometimes one of us will cry. We’re there to listen if ranting or venting is needed. It’s the relationships we form when we play together that leave us wanting to come back to play again and again.”

Bernstein recalled a “hurting sister” who lost her husband to pancreatic cancer being greeted with hugs when the woman arrived to play with the group. Bernstein said she told them: “I knew coming here to play mah-jongg would help me feel better today. It gives me a reason to get out of bed on Mondays.” A dying husband asked Bernstein to keep her friendship going with his wife.

It gets into your life

Rubin, too, spoke of personal benefits of mah-jongg as boosting its popularity on Long Island. “Mah-jongg is truly the antidote to stress,” she said. “The support of my weekly mah-jongg group has helped me through many challenging times in my life”

Mah-jongg becomes an integral part of people’s lives. Rubin said, “Some women who are relocating come to me to learn mah-jongg as a way to meet people and make friends in their new location.”  

Testifying to the game’s addictive nature, a Realtor seeking playing partners advertised online recently: “Have car, will travel, no problem; just want to play.”

Bernstein said her 376-page memoir “has received heartwarming and very positive reviews from readers across the country,” she said.

Rubin said Bernstein’s book “captured the magic of her Monday mah-jongg game with the strong bonds of friendship formed as they support one another through life’s critical moments.”

The Life Enrichment Center at Oyster Bay name is among many places on Long Island where free mah-jongg classes are offered (see box). The game there owes its beginnings to Selma Rucker. In the mid-1990s Rucker was hesitant to join the center because the game was not offered then, said Nancy Farinaccio, the center’s program assistant. “She got a group of seniors together and they started playing with an old [mah-jongg] set of my mom’s. It became popular. She came every Friday, religiously.”

It was also a request from patrons that brought mah-jongg to the South Country Library in Bellport. “A fairly regular group of people come,” said Sean McDonald, assistant head of the reference department. “We set up a room for them. It’s like a club. This group has been going for several years now.”

To those unfamiliar with the game, Bernstein suggests in her memoir, “If you haven’t tried a class … join or create a sisterhood of mah-jongg players in your neighborhood. You too can call out, “2 Bam, 4 Crak … and feel the thrill of calling out mah-jongg!”

Get in the game

Canasta and Mah-Jongg Club, 2-4 p.m. Fridays through Dec. 27, Westhampton Free Library, 7 Library Ave., Westhampton Beach; 631-288-3335, westhamptonlibrary.net or email whamlib@suffolk.lib.ny.us; free; register.

Mah-jongg, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Mondays and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays through Dec. 17, at Mattituck-Laurel Library, 13900 Main Rd., Mattituck; 631-298-4134 or mattitucklaurellibrary.org; free.

Mah-jongg, 1 p.m. Tuesdays, at Joyce Fitzpatrick Senior Center, 50 Irish Lane, East Islip; 631-224-5396; free.

Mah-jongg, 10 a.m.-noon Wednesdays through Dec. 18, at South Country Library, 22 Station Rd., Bellport; 631-286-0818 or sctylib.org; free, with two mah-jongg sets available to share or bring-your-own.

Mah-Jongg for Advanced Beginners, 6:15-8:45 p.m. Mondays (except Nov. 11, and Jan. 20 and Feb. 17, 2020), and for Intermediate and Beyond players, 11:30-3 p.m. on Wednesdays, Baldwin Library, 2385 Grand Ave., Baldwin; 516-223-6228, baldwinpl.org or info@baldwinpl.org; free; advanced beginners and new inexperienced players are welcome to join and meet new people for an evening of modern American mah-jongg; bring your rules card and set.

Mah-Jongg Clubs, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays (Room C/D; includes bridge) and 6:30-8:30 p.m. Mondays (Room F), Farmingdale Public Library, 116 Merritts Rd., Farmingdale; 516-249-9090 or farmingdalelibrary.org.

Mah-jongg, 1 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. Wednesdays and 1 p.m. Fridays, The Life Enrichment Center at Oyster Bay, 45 East Main St., Oyster Bay; 516-922-1770 or lifeenrichmentcenteroysterbay.org; call to confirm.

— Compiled by Newsday Library Data Team

Meet the author of 'Mah Jongg Mondays'

  • Nov. 12, 7 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Sholom Beth David, 100 Hempstead Ave, Rockville Centre; $18 donation (free to paid Game Night participants).
  • Nov. 14, 7.30 p.m. at Temple Judea, 333 Searingtown Rd., Manhasset; $10 donation.

Both events are open to the public. For more information, visit fernbernstein.com.

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