About a year ago, mahjong became a new interest in my mother’s life. Watching my mother’s group play this confusing game, I became intrigued. What is this mahjong? I had to have an answer!
It turned out that getting an answer was the easy part, because my mother was eager to practice. Noticing my interest, she dug into her bag for tiles and game cards.
At first, I remember just feeling dumb and being overwhelmed. I even pronounced mahjong wrong.
“What is this sorcery?” I kept asking. “I have no idea what is going on!”
But, eventually, it clicks, and the more you learn, the more fun it is.
Still, I was apprehensive. “Isn’t this a ladies’ game?” I kept inquiring.
My mother, Faye Zuckerman, plays with a group of six women, and another group I knew of was all women, too. Even on the official national mahjong website, most of the photos feature groups of women. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but I kept wondering, “Was I about to be the first man to be taught this cryptic game?”
A few weeks later, I posted on Facebook, “This is how I spent my Saturday night! Playing mahjong with my mom!” Moments later, I received a comment from Ellen Bensusan: “We play every Tuesday night. You should join us.”
Bensusan is a former teacher of mine at Barrington High School. We had stayed in contact via Facebook since I graduated in ’09. She is the president of the United Brothers Synagogue, in Bristol.
The following Tuesday, as my mom got ready to head off to her mahjong group, I prepared to leave for mine.
I had never been to the United Brothers Synagogue. I couldn’t even picture where it was located.
When I arrived, it looked to me like a hole-in-the-wall house stuck between two bigger buildings. But then my eye was caught by the large illuminated Star of David window – nearly as big as the entire second floor.
The building is older. The sanctuary is beautiful, with a balcony in which the Orthodox women used to sit while the men sat in the first-floor pews. I thought this was ironic, as I was about to play a game that I believed was strictly for women.
However, as I sat down to start, a married couple arrived, followed by two men. The next thing I knew, there were at least six men getting ready to play.
“I think that is what makes our group so unique,” Carol Louison said. Louison has been a member of the temple for almost two decades. She was one of the original members of the mahjong group, along with Ronnee Wasserman.
“We got together one Tuesday night, and they taught us, and we liked it,” Bensusan remembered. “We were going to do it once a month, but we thought that we couldn’t learn fast enough. By the time you get back, you forgot what you learned. So we started doing it every week. And the rest is history.”
The group, which started with six players, had jumped to 16 by the end of the first year.
“I think the interesting thing about our group is that we do have men,” Louison said.
Bensusan’s husband, Rick, said, “I go for the socialization and seeing friends. The game [also] challenges my brain, which helps keep me active.”
Another man, Chris Menton, commented, “Old friends suggested it to be a fun activity. I enjoy the high levels of reflection and activity.”
Social activities are very important for this synagogue, which only holds services once a month.
“This way, the community comes together more often. It’s about community and friendship,” Bensusan said. “This temple is about a community of friends that like to get together and do things together. We see each other every week, which is nice.”
I was flabbergasted by the number of men in the room (and so was my mom when I told her later that night). But, at the end of the day, what I like about United Brothers Synagogue’s mahjong group isn’t just the male players, but the strong bond of the congregants. Everyone knows each other – women, men, even entire families – and they clearly enjoy one another’s company.
Since October, when I was invited to play with the group, I’ve tried not to miss a single Tuesday night. They collect a dollar from each player every week to put toward an end-of-the-year mahjong party, and then donate the remaining amount to a charity.
Every week, the snack table is full of homemade desserts. Players rotate between tables so they get to play with different people – there are no cliques. And the competition is friendly, it’s all just fun.
So, even though I mispronounced it, I will never regret asking my mother, “What is this mahjong?”
The United Brothers Synagogue is located at 205 High St., in Bristol. The congregation welcomes new members, as well as mahjong players.
For more information, call 401-253-3460.
SETH CHITWOOD is the creative director of the production company Angelwood Pictures (angelwoodpictures.com). He recently won a 2016 LA Web Series Festival for Best Drama Series (“Family Problems”). He is a film studies and theater performance major from Rhode Island College.