Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” a children’s literary essential, was first published in 1947, but it’s as popular today — if not more so — than it was 70 years ago.
“Goodnight Bubbala,” adapted from “Goodnight Moon” by Sheryl Haft and illustrated by Jill Weber, carries the subtitle, “A Joyful Parody.” It draws on the simple genius of the original, but features the not-so-simple Yiddish language, applying the charming and quieted elements of Wise Brown’s classic to a rowdy and loving extended Jewish family.
“I looked at this little old lady whispering ‘hush’ and wondered who she was,” recalls Haft, a former product designer who has worked for Warner Brothers’ children’s publishing division. “She seems like a grandma, but what if she’s a bubbie?”
If this little old lady is indeed a bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother), the nighttime experience wouldn’t be “so calm and quiet,” says Haft. Perhaps she would recall memories of her own Jewish family.
Haft, a native New Yorker who also resides part-time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, says that spending a lot of time in a small Western town got her thinking about and longing for her own extended family. She thought about how funny it would be “if this whole Jewish family came in to put this bubbala bunny to sleep.”
Haft began writing children’s stories when her three daughters were young. “I really love writing stories for children, the same way some people write poetry,” she says.
At first, she only wrote stories for her daughters, but after becoming involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, she started attending conferences and workshops that propelled her forward in the often difficult and obstacle-ridden path to publishing children’s books.
Haft submitted her first manuscript in 2005 and an agent signed her on immediately. “I thought, this is going to be so easy,” she said.
But it wasn’t so. After getting passed over by numerous publishers, Haft eventually ended up at where she started, unpublished. In 2015, she eventually published her first children’s book, “I Love You Blankie.”
“If you want to write, you have to really love the process, because the chances of selling a manuscript are very slim,” she says. “And you’re not going to get rich.”
Haft says she is drawn to the children’s book writing community and looks to them for support and friendship because “it’s hard to be a mean person and be a children’s book writer. These are all kind-spirited people.”
And because writing can be so solitary, she feels fortunate for this like-minded community of writers, many of whom are good friends and who care about the same things. “It’s validating,” she says.
The word “bubbala,” says Haft, is Yiddish for “little darling” or something to that effect. But technically, she says, bubbala means “little grandmother.” Addressing a young girl as “little grandmother” imbues good luck, so that one day she may be a grandmother herself.
“Goodnight Bubbala” opens with the little Jewish bunny rabbit preparing for bedtime —
And then, oy, vey!, came —
The whole mishpacha! (family)
Turn the page and there’s a chaotic scene with “two little bubbies (grandmothers) schlepping their hubbies,” as well as an array of cousins and siblings and hip-looking parents; a mishmash of pots of kneidel (matzah balls), and latkes and bagels. (Yes, mishmash is a Yiddish word.)
After the bunny bubbala welcomes the rowdy parade of family, food and music into the room, the story tenderly concludes by imparting universal values, such as cherishing the things and people you have in your life by telling them “goodnight.”
But “Bubbala” also introduces specific Jewish values such as chesed (showing kindness), tikkun olam (repairing the world), ba’al tash’chit (not wasting; note that bubbala bunny has a shmatta, a tattered blanket with a rip in it), chaver tov (being a good friend), tzedakah (charity), hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and, of course, the joys of food and music.
Unlike our favorite old lady whispering hush, however, “Goodnight Bubbala” doesn’t intend to lull the listener to sleep, but offers a colorful palette of Yiddish language and rich Jewish culture as a platform for dialogue between adult and child.
“I love the idea that I’ve given a little bit of joy to an adult and a child, even if it’s just for a few minutes,” says Haft.
At the end of the book, there is a helpful glossary of Yiddish words and even a latke recipe by Haft’s close friend, celebrity cookbook author Ina Garten.
The characters in “Bubbala” are brought to life by illustrator Jill Weber. In a style reminiscent of American folk art, her delightful illustrations, especially of the Jewish family, are funny and relatable.
There is also a song commissioned to accompany the book written by Rebecca Schoffer, director of musical engagement at the 92nd Street Y, called “We’re Gonna Learn Some Yiddish.” The recording is available on Soundcloud and on Haft’s website.
To keep “Bubbala” current, Haft considered themes of social justice, with particular attention to the rise of anti-Semitism across the country and the world. She hopes people who are not Jewish might be interested in the book.
“I am hopeful that teachers and parents will find this as an opportunity to expose kids to Jewish American culture in a fun and accessible way,” she says, adding that even though this is a book about Jewish culture, it’s also an immigration story about what makes the United States so interesting and dynamic.
But what about the Yiddish language? Is there enough interest in preserving this dying language to make it the focus of a children’s book? Haft says yes, and credits hipsters for the resurgence among young adults.
“Yiddish is kind of hip now, there’s a hipster appeal,” she says. Haft has been told by Jewish education experts that this book will appeal to young Jewish parents who are not necessarily interested in becoming more religious, but who are interested in knowing their cultural roots and passing along some Yiddish words to their kids.
Yiddish language and literature courses are enjoying high enrollment on college campuses everywhere, says Haft, adding that she hopes “Goodnight Bubbala” will be on the “must have” list of books for Jewish gifts.
Jackson Hole has been part of Haft’s life for some time. After sending her teenage daughters to wilderness adventure summer programs in the town for years, Haft and her husband, Jeffery Flug, eventually bought a home in the valley.
The two attended an event with the Jackson Hole Jewish community and found it “very sweet and refreshing, as synagogue life in New York City can be very formal.” They fell in love with the leadership and the community.
“We liked how relaxed and musical it was,” she says. Haft also says it was the first time they lived in a place where almost nobody knew what a “mensch” was.
Haft grew up with a large extended Jewish family, many of whom were affected by the Holocaust, but were mostly secular except for observing High Holidays. Her grandparents had immigrated from Poland and Russia. Haft’s own bubbie had come from a very small farming village in Lodz, Poland, and even though she lived in the US for decades, “she always seemed to me like she had just come from Europe that day,” laughs Haft.
The book launched on October 15, and Haft is taking the “Goodnight Bubbala” read and sing-along on the Jewish Book Council tour in the coming months.
Her stops include Houston, the Latkepalooza in Virginia Beach, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Her readings and sing-alongs include learning Yiddish, kids games, and music with live musicians.
Reflecting back on how this project has made her appreciate “Goodnight Moon” and the values it conveys, Haft says the process of creating this adaptation was very personal to her.
“I think that writing this book might reflect my wish to have my whole family around me,” Haft says.
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