The only sounds I could hear were the clacking of small Bakelite tiles and the calls of "crack, bam, dot" from the four women seated around the table. As I peeked over the shoulder of one of the players, who was allowing this learner to sit in, I studied the designs on the vivid squares filling the center of the table.
The tiles were imprinted with Chinese characters and symbols, and the women's exclamations came as each one discarded a tile she had picked up, or one plucked from the rack facing her.
You may recognize that I was observing the ancient game of Mah Jongg. What you may not fathom is what Elaine Soloway was doing at the table. For wasn't she the gal who swore she shunned card-, table-, and hide and seek- games? Isn't this the former Chicagoan who insisted she hadn't the patience for anything lasting longer than 30 minutes?
Moreover, isn't she the Los Angeles transplant who declared she preferred solitary, rather than group pursuits, especially those not under her control?
So what are we to make of this picture of our Elaine perched on the edge at several Mah Jongg games, her view focused on her teacher's line-up and folder outlining the possible hands.
Sit for a bit, as I pull back the curtain to this recent phenomenon when I (time to switch to first person) decided to discard all of my restrictions, including my previous snobbery about the game.
My conversion -- aptly enough -- came at a weekend retreat for the women of Temple Israel of Hollywood. That's the synagogue I attend for Saturday morning Torah study. My friend Thelma, who chauffeurs me for the weekly lessons, urged me to sign up for the retreat. "You'll get a chance to meet women of all ages and enjoy the Ojai scenery and clean air," she said.
I hesitated before agreeing, because as I have stated, I was a non-joiner; and on top of that, was not a camper. Although there were opportunities to attend summer sleepover camp during my childhood, I was a scaredy-cat. I never wanted to leave my mama; and since I was slightly pudgy and uncoordinated, I preferred for my school vacations the concrete sidewalks of Division Street or the greenery of Humboldt Park.
Despite all that, something spurred me to sign up for the weekend retreat, which offered exercise classes, Jewish learning, hikes, and Mah Jongg. But the first entry in my journal on the morning after check-in, read: I have made a mistake. I don't belong here. Everyone knows more about Judaism than I. Where will I get my coffee when I wake before breakfast? I can't figure out the heat in this room. I wish I could leave early.
Oy, such a complainer! Even I got tired of me. Then, I said to myself: Would it kill you to get with the program? Go to beginner Mah Jongg! Instead of whining, be game.
So, I did, and as I sat at the table with women decades younger than myself, I imagined my dearly departed mother and her sisters hovering overhead. I could almost hear Min, Rose, Etta, and Molly clicking the tiles. I could listen to their conversations, gossip, and laughter. I could practically smell their perfume. I easily saw their beautiful faces -- pinup girls all of them -- and their smiles as they relished their time together.
Let's pause for a bit of history: While Mah Jongg originated in China in the 19th century; it became part of Jewish life during World War II. In fact, 12 Jewish women who raised money at tournaments for various relief organizations formed the National Mah Jongg League. The game spread in the 1950s and 1960s to our mothers' card tables. And currently, it's popular among younger women. For example, my Ojai teachers were in their '30's and '40's.
Now, I'm not sure if I'll ever really learn the game or even play it again. But, that's not the moral of this story. It is this: sometimes you can leave your comfort zone and try something you've previously avoided. Sometimes, you can say to yourself: would it hurt you to play? Would it be a disaster to stay awake past your normal bedtime? Could you possibly enjoy being part of a group? Would it kill you to take directions from someone other than yourself?
As for my misgivings cited in my Day One journal, it turned out that I loved the Shabbat services despite not knowing the Hebrew lyrics and melodies, I joined new friends at an early morning coffee run, and the low heat setting in my room kept me toasty.
Crack, bam, dot!