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Newcomers to an ancient game

A mah-jongg lesson in the Manhasset home of

A mah-jongg lesson in the Manhasset home of their teacher engrosses, from left, Bianca Johnson, 15, Jessenia Hartage, Melvenia Johnson and Wendy Balabon. (July 7, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Elie Royere of Oceanside has been playing mah-jongg with the same group of women since 1964. "We moved into the area at the same time and one neighbor taught four of us on the block," Royere, 85, explains.

"It's something to look forward to and the camaraderie is great," says Hermine Roussine, 75, of Island Park, who has been playing with Royere for 10 years.

Then there's relative newcomer Alexander DeRidder, 19, of East Patchogue, whose grandmother, Pat DeRidder, taught him the game when he was 8.

Pat DeRidder, 67, of Mattituck recalls with pride the time he asked to join her mah-jongg group at the Mattituck-Laurel Library. "The women looked at him -- he's 6-foot-6 -- and the first time they played he won the first two games."

Mah-jongg -- a game that traces its roots to China hundreds of years ago -- is credited as a social glue that bonds people across ages and backgrounds. And based on accounts of mah-jongg players, teachers and others, it appears to be enjoying a resurgence: Long Island's libraries, community centers, adult education programs and golf and tennis clubs report growing interest in lessons and weekly games.

It's a game known historically for its impact on the lives of Asian-American and Jewish-American women, a phenomenon explored in the 1997 documentary "Mah-Jongg: The Tiles That Bind."

The weekly ritual fosters bonding -- not unlike that among the friends in "Sex and the City," said one of the filmmakers, Bari Pearlman, adding that the mah-jongg group becomes "the core group of advice givers on critical family issues." 

Mah-jongg's expansion
And even as the game became identified with suburban homemakers, today it encompasses women with careers outside the home - and men, too, said Melissa Martens, curator of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, where "Project Mah Jongg" is on exhibit. Martens said she plays a weekly game with other staff members.

In the exhibit - featuring audio interviews with Elie Royere and her mah-jongg-playing husband, Bob -- the game's history and traditions in Chinese and American Jewish culture are explored, as is its impact on American fashion and design.

"We've had calls and e-mails from people across the country who would like to play, see the exhibit, or share their memories," Martens said.

The game's renaissance, she said, can be attributed to a number of factors: Women looking to reconnect with their mothers or grandmothers or who have inherited vintage mah-jongg sets, the game's retro appeal and its portrayal in films, from "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) to "The Joy Luck Club" (1993) and the Chinese espionage thriller "Lust, Caution" (2007).

On a recent evening in Manhasset, instructor Lin Maris gave three students from Queens their first lesson. The women -- Jessenia Hartage, 38, of Laurelton, Melvenia Johnson, 35, of South Ozone Park, and Wendy Balabon, 49, of Queens Village, all African-American -- learned of the game only recently.

"It was something different and I was curious -- I had never done anything like this before and I wanted to learn about it," said Hartage, a designer of custom window treatments.

"I had to look it up on the Internet and I found it intriguing that there was this game I had never heard of and it has such history," added Johnson, a communications specialist for a Manhattan investment company. Maris says her appointment book is full of more lesson seekers - even from young men who refer to mah-jongg as a "babe catcher."

"It is no longer just the stereotypical . . . ladies game," said Maris. "As the world becomes more cosmopolitan, more people are interested in learning how to play."

As a child, Maris said, she accompanied her Chinese-American father to watch men play mah-jongg for high stakes in Chinatown. "In my household I was not allowed to play," she said. "My father thought it was a gambling game." As an adult, she says, she was smitten: "I love the interaction and the play of the game." 

Younger, broader audience
The Manhattan-based National Mah Jongg League "is getting a much younger group of players and attracting different ethnic groups," said Ruth Unger, who's been the league's president for 30 years. She estimated membership at 350,000 to 400,000 "and growing," with Long Island and New York City accounting for 10 percent to 13 percent of membership.

Linda Feinstein, a Manhattan-based mah-jongg instructor, says she gave lessons in April to 12 women -- friends with summer homes in the Hamptons. "They all wanted to play in the Hamptons this summer and it was a real crunch to get them finished by June," she said. One woman used her BlackBerry during a lesson to order a mah- jongg set for next-day delivery so the group could play that weekend.

Instructor Alex Pollack, 58, of Ronkonkoma said growing interest in mah-jongg can be found at golf clubs. When he was asked to teach group lessons at The Mill River Club in Oyster Bay for eight to 10 people, "it ended up being over two dozen people," said club member Beth Mazzeo, 59, of Oyster Bay. The veteran players welcomed the newbies, she said, adding that "mah-jongg people want more mah- jongg people."

Johnson said that after she completes her four group lessons, she plans to teach the game to her husband and 15-year-old daughter, Bianca.

"Tradition is so important in families and I think people are losing a sense of family," she says. "Kids are so gadget-oriented.  . . . Here is something you can broaden your horizons with and make part of a family night."

Pat DeRidder concurred: "It's important to keep games like this in our lives - important to keep the tradition going."

"Mah-jongg is a game you can take from the spring through the autumn of your life," said Maris. "It is adaptable and flexible, therefore it survives - like Ol' Man River, it keeps rolling along."

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