Exploring the mystery world of mah jongg

Fern Bernstein believes it was “bashert” that drove her to write her memoir, “Mah Jongg Mondays,” which hit shelves in April, diving into what the 52-year-old author refers to as the mystical world of mah jongg.

Bashert, the Yiddish word for “destiny,” is reflective of much of her life, Ms. Bernstein, who grew up on the North Fork, said Monday at her home in Melville.

“It’s always been a special place in my heart,” she said of the North Fork. “I went fishing and clamming and water skiing and we had lobster pots. You name it, we did it. My mother was an avid fisherwoman. She taught me everything I needed to know about fishing. I filetted fish, I would bait the hook, I would drive the boat.”

In August, the mother of three closed on a second home in Greenport with her husband, Leonard.

“I’m going to cry just saying it. I love my home,” she said. “I summered in Greenport on Inlet Lane for 13 years of my life. My grandfather built the home … I was the third generation.”

When her parents divorced, the Inlet Lane home was sold. Her mother has since passed away and her brother lives in East Marion.

Two and half years ago, her husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — “a really big wake-up call” for the family, Ms. Bernstein said.

“We just decided, you know what? Let’s start looking around and see if we can maybe find a small summer home.”

Today, her husband is in remission and Ms. Bernstein has self-published a memoir about a classic game she stumbled upon by happenstance six years ago.

“I was sitting at my girlfriend’s pool club and we’re just kind of hanging out, four moms just enjoying some leisure time,” she said. “I look over and I see some women playing mah jongg. I’ve heard for years [about] women playing and loving it, but I’d never gotten into it.”

Ms. Bernstein’s late mother had given her a mah jongg set some 30 years earlier. One thing led to another that afternoon at the pool club and she ultimately organized a makeshift classroom in her kitchen, where a friend gave lessons.

“Here I am today, playing every week, loving this game and the friendships that I’ve made around my mah jongg table,” she said.

For Ms. Bernstein, the game is about camaraderie, support and friendship. Alongside her religious beliefs, sitting around the table with good friends helped her deal with life’s uncertainties. “Mah Jongg Mondays” is a story of resilience, too. The Bernsteins moved into their Melville home around 2001, but just a few years later, it burned to the ground in an electrical fire. Nothing of value could be saved, and the house had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today, mah jongg tiles sit atop her new kitchen table as symbols of hope and faith.

Learning the mechanics of the problem-solving game, Ms. Bernstein said, took patience, but she enjoyed the mental challenge.

“It’s a right brain-left brain symphony, so you’re using part of your brain for congenial conversation, where the other part of the brain is working on an analytical assignment,” she explained.

Her love for the game, she added, derives from its social component. The women she plays with each Monday at 11:30 a.m. never get too competitive; by now, they know one another’s movements and signals. But mah jongg tournaments, which Ms. Bernstein has yet to experience, often do.

“People live and breathe mah jongg … they want to take the game up a notch, and they go to these tournaments,” she said. “Because my games are a little bit more relaxed, I’m kind of shy and feel nervous. What if I make a mistake at the table? What if I’m not fast enough?”

Games often run seven to eight hours, but the version Ms. Bernstein and her friends play lasts just two or three. She came across a supportive Facebook group of roughly 25,000 players called “Mah Jongg, That’s It!,” saw that there were no tournaments in New York and decided to develop one of her own.

“I have one scheduled for February at my temple, Temple Beth Torah [in Melville], and it’s going to be a four-hour tournament with cash prizes, raffles, giveaways,” she said.

Ms. Bernstein, a religious instructor and part-time yoga teacher at her temple, said meditating and staying positive have helped her through darker days.

“My comfort and escape during this time was, every Monday, I got to play this game of mah jongg and I could just escape in my head for two or three hours.”

She calls the game multigenerational and says the experience is all about connecting with people.

Ms. Bernstein kicked off a book tour for “Mah Jongg Mondays” in September in Irvine, Calif., and will continue the tour through May, ending in Toronto. To date, she has sold 2,400 copies and is working on establishing herself and reaching a larger audience.

“That’s what I want to do, is to inspire people,” she said.

“Mah Jongg Mondays” is available for purchase at Burton’s Bookstore in Greenport.

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