Mah Jongg & Me

By: Donna Neubauer

Throughout the summer in honor of the exhibit Project Mah Jongg, Jewish Museum Milwaukee will be posting local mah jongg memories. We are thrilled to kick off this series with JMM docent Donna Neubauer’s reflections on her Mahj Memories.

My love affair with Mahj Jongg began in 1957.  In my senior year of high school three of my friends and I decided to start a Mahj Jongg club.  After all wasn’t it part of our Jewish DNA?. We should be naturals at this complex game.
First we need a set.
“Barbara’s mother has one and so does my mother,” said Judy.
“My mother has one permanently set up in our living room,” I  replied.
Okay, that issue was settled.  The next week we met at Barbara’s house after school.  We had no idea what we were doing and a Mahj Jongg card was even necessary.  We just made up a combination of hands that made sense to us.  That year the seed was planted, but never had the opportunity to blossom. Our Mahj club disbanded within two months.
I don’t remember ever taking a lesson to learn the game of Mahj Jongg.  I just played.  When I was a stay at home mom with a new baby, my girlfriends and I had pick up games.  With a phone call in the morning the game was created.  We decided where we would play that day, packed up our babies and all their necessary items, and played Mahj Jongg until the babies got fussy.  We played Mahj Jongg while the babies sat and cooed in their infant seats.  We stopped to feed the babies and ourselves and put them back in the crib to nap once again.  Sometimes we had three infants in a crib all sound asleep.
I also played Mahj in the evening when Bob wasn’t working so he could baby-sit our little ones.  We alternated homes and stopped at about 10:00 p.m for cake and coffee.  After the short break we continued our mahj game until about midnight.  During those years we played under a haze of smoke from our cigarettes.  Today our TV tables hold nosheri, then they held stubs of crushed cigarettes and piles of ashes which had to be emptied periodically during the evening. We sometimes talked and laughed more than we played. We shared with each other our hopes, dreams and sorrows, we exchanged new  recipes and shared the latest parenting skills.
When the children attended school full time, I  was able to play during the day several times a week with Cyril, Toni, and Clara.  We brought our lunch in a brown paper bag to the hostess’s home.  She provided the coffee.  We dropped our kids off at school at 9:00 a.m. played until lunch time when we brought out our sandwiches, and between bites continued our fast paced game.  We stopped at 3:30 p.m when we left to pick up our kids at school.  I loved that game which disbanded when Toni moved to Minneapolis and Cyril moved to Denver.
Today I play Mahj three times a week.  Each group I have been part of has brought beautiful memories I still hold dear to my heart.  Playing Mahj jong has given me friendships I would have never had if it had not been for that obsessively, addictive game.  The Mahj Jongg card has changed yearly but the friendships and memories continue to  remain.
Instead of meeting at private homes, we have the luxury of dining out in local restaurants that encourage us to remain and play Mahj.  Today we share with each other the results of our latest medical tests, complaints about our aches and pains and our concerns in respect to our husband’s health.  We don’t bring babies, but myriads of pictures of grown children, stories and accomplishments of our brilliant grandchildren and for some, anecdotes about their great grandchildren.
My friend Natalie and I are planning to go to the Greenfield Institute in Madison, Wisconsin in July.  When we were at our weekly mahj game she asked, “Are you bringing your Mahj set Donna?.”
“Of course I am.” I replied.
So if you see two ladies waiting for a third and fourth player for Mahj Jongg please join us, we need you.  Bring your Mahj Jongg card and of course money.  We’ll provide the munchies.
Isn’t it wonderful that somethings never change.
Come learn more about the game of Mah Jongg at Jewish Museum Milwaukee. The exhibit is open through August 28, 2016. #MahJonggAllSummerLong

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