Too Young or Too Old?

Too Young or Too Old?

I never had a Bat Mitzvah. This set me apart from many of my classmates – third graders enticed to suffer through years of Hebrew school by the promise of a big, splashy party at the end. But as an intensely shy ten-year-old, I was horrified by the prospect of a gala featuring me as the guest of honor, preceded by a solo performance before family, friends and congregants at which I would be required to chant in an ancient language while a rabbi looked over my shoulder, shaking his head mournfully. So when my mother gave me the choice of Hebrew school or ballet class, I opted for group recitals in tights and tutus as the lesser of two evils.

Some 40 years later I was confronted with yet another Jewish tradition which, like the Bat Mitzvah, also involved reciting strange words from an ancient language. Only this time the words were Chinese, not Hebrew, and instead of standing on a podium in a synagogue reading from right to left, you sat in a friend’s kitchen or living room and passed small square tiles to the right, then over, then twice to the left, over, back to the right again and once more across.

For reasons that seem to escape everyone, it has come to be expected that some time around middle-age every Jewish woman will, like her mother before her, begin spending several afternoons a week sitting around a table with three other women hunched over racks of tiles, calling out peculiar phrases like: “three crack; north; seven bam, soap, flower, green dragon, …”. (This is all very mysterious. And why Jewish women in particular? I’ve yet to hear a convincing explanation.) In any event, my mother had decided my time had come: “You should learn now,” she said, implicitly adding the words “while you’re mind is still functioning”. And though I accepted the fact that I would someday become one of the “ladies that play”, my first instinct was to resist.

Part of my reluctance was the fear, universal among women, of finally actually becoming my mother. It made me uncomfortable to think that we could be “into” the same thing. I preferred to indulge the illusion that I was too young to be a Mah Jongg player. I recalled scenes from my childhood when I would peek at my mother playing Maj with her friends. It seemed to me that even back then they were old, though in all likelihood they were a decade or so younger than I am now. However, I noted with some relief that my mom and her friends had recently begun to make the transition to Canasta. This card game of the rummy ilk apparently marks the next step in the progression of aging of the American Jewish female. (Who knew?)

But it wasn’t only my mother who was urging me on –- obeying a call of nature audible only to women of a certain age, my contemporaries were flocking to the game in droves. (Talk about a biological clock!) I soon found myself at a table with three of my grade school friends; one of whom, Marsha, had been playing for several years and was to be our teacher. With the equanimity born of many years educating pre-schoolers, Marsha carefully explained the intricate rules of Mah Jongg as we stared back at her with bleary eyes. It did not take long before her professional patience began to wane: “No”, she would moan, holding her head in her hands, “for the last time, you can never, ever use a joker to make a pair!”

To her credit, Marsha suffered through our lessons until we had succeeded in learning the rudiments of the game. Then, like an exhausted parent relieved to finally remove the training wheels from the bicycle, she gave us a shove and let go. Having discharged her teaching duties Marsha bowed out, claiming schedule conflicts whenever we tried to plan a game. So, for our fourth player we resorted to a “dummy” whom we named “Robert”. Robert turned out to be not only a perfect fourth, but also as close to a perfect man as any of us had ever encountered – always willing and available to play (even though he never won), neither bitchy nor critical, and even good for passing an occasional joker.

And so we three middle-aged grade-school buddies took up Mah Jongg in earnest. At first I feared we would lapse back into the snarky habits of middle-school – that sitting down at a table to play a game would summon up competitive, mean girl feelings of the kind we used to experience playing Monopoly, Sorry, or The Barbie Game. But our better, or at least more practical, natures prevailed, because none of us wanted to start hunting for three new players. We were quickly becoming addicted to the game. The irony for me was that the first Jewish tradition I could fully embrace turned out to be Chinese.

I can see Mah Jongg, and its salutary combination of mental and social activity, filling many otherwise empty afternoons as we sail into senescence. But like anything else, you shouldn’t overdo it. Doctors in China diagnosed a woman with a dangerous blood clot – the result of remaining planted at the Maj table for eight hours straight. The Chinese medical journal named the syndrome “Mah Jongg-related deep-vein thrombosis.”

I’ll take my chances. Besides, it’s suddenly become cool to play Mah Jongg: According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, with the nostalgia craze prompted by Mad Men, Mah Jongg (at one point in the early part of the 20th century, the most popular game in the country) is making a big comeback. Women in their 20’s and 30’s are setting up tables in the backs of Manhattan bars, sipping appletinis and munching on endamame as they rack their tiles.

Which means my fears about being too young to play Maj were way off the mark – it turns out, I’m actually too old! A recent brunch with my long lost friend Marsha confirmed as much. When I accused her of cruelly abandoning her former students she denied it: “It wasn’t that”, she said. “It’s just that I don’t play much Maj anymore. I’ve moved on to Canasta.”

I’m definitely too young for Canasta.

Article and illustration by Alisa Singer

About the Author
Alisa Singer’s humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada. She is the author of various gift books designed to entertain and amuse baby boomers. Her newest book, When a Girl Goes From Bobby Sox to Compression Stockings…She Gets a Little Cranky, is available at You can learn more about her work by visiting her website: or contacting her at