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December 4, 2015  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Bam! Orlando-area bubbes’ mah jongg game busted

Special to the Jewish Press
via Heritage Florida Jewish News

Two of the “notorious mah jongg mavens,” Zelda King (left) and Lee Delnick, are shown during an interview with Steve Doocy on Fox and Friends, which aired Dec. 2. Two of the “notorious mah jongg mavens,” Zelda King (left) and Lee Delnick, are shown during an interview with Steve Doocy on Fox and Friends, which aired Dec. 2. Right in the heart of the quiet little city of Altamonte Springs near Orlando, four women (ages ranging from 86 to 95) – Lee Delnick, Bernice Diamond, Helen Greenspun and Zelda King – were enjoying their weekly game of mah jongg in the Escondido condominium clubhouse when they were interrupted by Altamonte Springs police who came to shut them down.

News of the busted bubbes spread quickly, with stories in publications in Israel and England. In the U.S., stories ran in The Forward, Tablet Magazine and a variety of mainstream newspapers and websites, including The Huffington Post. Two of the women, King and Delnick, were even interviewed on Fox and Friends.

The mishagas began when word apparently got out that there was “gambling” going on in the clubhouse and one person (whom King said is considered a “troublemaker and lives in Building 11”) called the police.

Following the “raid,” the condominium management sent the women a certified letter stating that until further notice there would be no mah jongg, bingo or poker played in the clubhouse.

“This is ridiculous,” said King, 87, said shortly after the raid. “We haven’t played in the clubhouse for weeks! We have to go to each other’s homes to play and not everyone lives in Escondido. It is an international game and we are being crucified!”

Lt. Robert Pelton, spokesman for the Altamonte Springs Police Department, defended his department’s actions in a story in the Orlando Weekly, saying nobody was crucified and specifying that while mah jongg itself is legal, the real issue was with the “other gambling-activities happening in the clubhouse.”

“Roulette,” Pelton told the Weekly. “It was the roulette tables that were making it illegal.”

The Weekly also reported that Pelton said some of the games being played at Escondido were being advertised and had become quite popular, and as a result, the pot had grown beyond that $10 limit. So police had to take action – but he says it was an educational action, not a punitive one.

The $10 limit Pelton refers to is a state law that “Certain penny-ante games are not crimes; ‘Penny-ante game’ means a game or series of games of poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes, or mahjong in which the winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game do not exceed $10 in value.”

The bubbes said the pot in their games is limited to $4, well under the $10 limit.

Pelton said that things went south because of neighborhood feuds that got out of hand. “They were upset because some neighbors called the police, and then we got called out to be the bad guys, but by no means is that true,” he told the Orlando Weekly.

While the police may have not found the publicity good for their department, the far-flung attention had the mah jongg players rolling in laughter and their phones ringing off the hook.

“It has been a shot in the arm for us,” exclaimed King, who is just giddy over the whole thing. “It raised our spirits. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life!”

A cousin of Diamond, 95, read the article in Connecticut and upon seeing Diamond’s name, called her.

Delnick, 86, reconnected with a relative and a close friend’s daughter. King discovered the daughter lived in Florida and said, “We are getting together soon.”

Delnick got a call from a nephew who saw the story in California. Her daughter Donna, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and is visiting her mom, said that a friend saw the article and asked her, “Is this your mom?”

“I couldn’t believe my mother was in a scandal!” Donna said. “My mother has played mah jongg for over 40 years at least and only for $2!”

“Blame it (the publicity) on me,” said Joanne Kane, King’s daughter. Kane is the one who called the police to find out why the women weren’t allowed to play mah jongg in the clubhouse. She spent hours trying to find answers – first with the city manager’s office, then with the police – all to no avail.

“But this has made their week!” Kane said. “It has brought them a lot of joy.”

And, with the issue resolved, the women are experiencing even more joy – being allowed to resume their regular game in the condo clubhouse.

The Jewish Press staff contributed to this story.

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