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Can Mah Jongg Promote Pluralism in Israel?

Can Mah Jongg Promote Pluralism in Israel?

Recently, I coordinated the third annual Mah Jongg tournament here in Modi’in, Israel, where I live. The event was sponsored by the Modi’in Mahj Mavens, the group of six women with whom I play weekly, and ESRA, the English Speaking Residents’ Association, which provides activities throughout our country to help English speakers integrate into Israeli life.

Our weekly group is quite varied: Our ages range from 50-80, our backgrounds run the gamut from psychiatric nurse to attorney to synagogue executive director, and we come from New York, Arizona, and South Africa. Although we do not see each other socially, we are true friends who share deep love and admiration for each other and relish our game time together on Wednesday nights.

Each May our little group hosts the tournament, which draws women (no gentlemen have ever registered, but they are certainly invited!) from all corners of our country – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Shoham, and elsewhere – to play the game beloved by us but otherwise largely unknown in Israel. Indeed, our native Israeli friends have never heard of this Jewish-American pastime and have no desire to learn to play.

In contrast, our South African and British friends – many of whom are game lovers who especially enjoy bridge – hopped right on the Mah Jongg bandwagon. It has been fun to explain to them how ingrained the game is in American Jewish culture, mostly through the memories it evokes: sneaking food from the snack tables, falling asleep to the shuffling of tiles, playing in the Catskills each summer, and the scent of perfume that lingered in the air long after the players had gone home.

Playing Mah Jongg brought to mind happy times, too, for the 23 women who attended our recent tournament. We rotated positions and tables so that almost everyone played with everyone else, and could become acquainted. Our group was motley: Some women wore head coverings, some wigs, some baseball caps, and some were bareheaded. Equally diverse was their clothing, from skirts and dresses to jeans and sweatpants. One woman stopped during the evening to count the Omer.

Observing the mixed group, I began to think: There we were, enjoying each other’s company, and yet, how many of these women would engage in conversation with me, as a Reform Jew, and agree with my views on marriage equality? Women in the rabbinate? Public transportation on Shabbat? How many would think less of me if they knew that these issues are ones in which I believe and for which I fight? That I attend and actively support a Reform synagogue led by an intelligent and charismatic female rabbi? How many would stand next to me at the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh service where, several weeks ago, a Torah was “smuggled” into the Western Wall plaza to be read? How many would refuse to eat in my home, assuming (incorrectly) that my kitchen is not kosher? These are just a few of the issues that surround me each and every day as a practicing liberal Jew in Israel.

Life in our tiny country is a joy, but it surely isn’t perfect. Our government hands huge sums of money and power to the Orthodox communities, while the Reform communities have to spend inordinate amounts of time and effort to raise their own money – mostly from generous private donors – just to survive. Reform kehillot (communities) are barely recognized for their positive influence in marginalized communities or for their endless tikkun olam (social justice) projects, reaching out to all who need help, regardless of their beliefs. This philosophy, emphasized by our liberal communities, counters an incident last week in which the police beat an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier simply for riding a bike! Who can possibly think such an act of racism is acceptable – and perpetuated against a soldier, no less? Such lack of conscience in our country separates and alienates its people more than it brings them together.

I wondered, too, as we swapped tiles and each tried to build a hand, whether simply playing Mah Jongg – focusing on the fun and laughter, the suspense, the click of the tiles, and finally the triumphant cry of “I’ve got Mahj!” – could encourage us to build bridges between people. Perhaps Mah Jongg can, in fact, bind us all together like cement.

I guess it’s like so many other things in life: We pursue our passions with a full heart and often with people who are different from us because, in fact, we share a bond or an interest. So it is, too, with a pluralistic society, which can be created by citizens who work as equal partners in pursuit of a common goal. Maybe we Israelis should ponder this thought more deeply, in an attempt to reach out to “the other” and find the things that join us together. If we did, I’ll bet we would all become winners.

Can I deal you in for the next hand?

Nechama Namal (formerly Nanci) lives in Modi’in, Israel, and is a congregant at Kehillat YOZMA, the Reform congregation there. She is the former executive director of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, AZ.

Nechama Namal
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