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'Project Mah Jongg' Exhibit Highlights Competition & Camaraderie

For decades, mahjongg has been the signature game of Jewish grandmothers across the U.S. In the digital age, the game has taken on a new life in the form of mahjongg solitaire. But the women behind the "ProjectMahJongg" exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee believe that relationships and competition are an essential part of "mahj." 

“I think if you ask any of the ladies who are here tonight, they would say, ‘Mah jongg is a game you have to play with people,’ and that being with people is an important part of that,” says Ellie Gettinger, the education director at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Credit Joy Powers
Photographs featured at the "Project Mah Jongg" exhibit, depicting women playing the game.

"Project MahJongg" looks at the history of the game in the U.S., and its prevalence in the Jewish community. The exhibit features artwork and artifacts, as well as live games and classes for both beginners and experts. “What we have discovered is there is a rabid fan base for mahjongg. There are people of all ages and stripes playing,” says Gettinger. “Some people have been playing for fifty years, and some people picked it up last month and they love it.”

Although many of the women involved with "Project Mah Jongg" remember their mothers playing the game, they didn't start playing until much later in life. Jody Herbert is one of them. She’s only been playing the game for about 4 years, even though she grew up with the game.

“My mother played, so I was able to watch her as a child and was in awe of what went on in our home regularly,” says Jody Herbert “It was a joy, it was fun. It was great to see her so happy and socializing with her friends.”

Credit Joy Powers
Mah jongg themed artwork, featured at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee's "Project Mah Jongg" exhibit.

Herbert tries to play mahjong at least a couple times a week, and one of her favorite things about the game is that it enables her to socialize with different groups of women. Players often meet with a weekly group of other players. And although the game is certainly competitive, for players like Julie Lookatch, her mahj group is more like family than competition. 

“The girls in my mahj group are not just my mahj group, they’re my mahj sisters. We do everything together. They’re the people that are there for me if I need something," says Lookatch. "We go to each other’s simchas and events. If something bad happens to one of us, the loss of a parent or anything like that, this is the group that rallies around that one person.”

This piece originally aired July 18, 2016. 

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.