Today we welcome Berkeley Heights resident Laurel Hessing to the blog. Laurel is well-known in our town as the historian and general force-to-be-reckoned-with for the unique single tax, 19th century utopian community which still exists in Berkeley Heights: Free Acres. One of the most frequent questions we get at the library Reference Desk is for information about the history and current status of this community of artists and free-thinkers. We will ask Laurel about that at the end of this interview, but today’s visit we want to first ask the author about her latest project in the theater world which debuts tomorrow May 5.
BHPL: On May 5, Hanoch Levin’s Winter Wedding will open at the Theater for the New City. Laurel, you translated the play from the original Hebrew. How did you happen to get involved in translating the Hanoch Levin Play?
LH: I have known David Willinger (the other translator) for a number of years. He is a teacher of theater at City College and has directed several plays at Theater for the New City where my sister, Crystal Field, one of the theater founders, is also the Artistic Director. David Willinger heard about my work on a translation of Uri Felshin’s work from Crystal and asked if I would be interested in translating a modern play from Hebrew into English. David Willinger obtained a copy for me in the original Hebrew from a collection of plays by the author at the Jewish Division of the NY Public Library. David had already translated the play from French into English as it had been translated and published in France, but the play was never translated into English. Ultimately he combined the best from both my translation from the Hebrew and his from the French. The play’s title in David Willinger’s production is “Winter Wedding”.
BHPL: The play was written in Hebrew by an Israeli playwright who is very popular in Israel, but not as well-known here in the U.S. Tell us what the play is about and what attracted you to the project.
LH: I was fascinated by the dark comedy in the script and agreed to tackle the project. There is a wedding as well as a funeral in the play. David tipped the balance toward wedding in choosing a title, in order not to frighten away our audience. “Winter Wedding” is a dark but funny critique of some hypocrisies that drive family values, relationships and ambitions. It is a play without a hero. Every foible and foolishness you can imagine motivates each character.. They squabble and betray each other but as nasty as they are one can’t help laughing. This dark satiric humor mirrors elements of the human soul.
BHPL: You mentioned your translation of Uri Felshin’s work. Tell us about that.
LH: I am currently working on the translation of Rabbi Uri Felshin’s autobiography which he wrote over the period of many years prior to his death in 1947. He wrote in Biblical Hebrew and the original of the manuscript is in the archive in Jerusalem. He wrote about his journey from Russia as a child of seven in 1880 with his parents and one of his sisters to the Holy Land when it was administered by the Turkish government. He lived in ancient Hebron and studied for the rabbinate in Jerusalem where he was ordained. He then served as the rabbi in the early settlements of Zichron Yacov and Metullah before he brought his family to the United States in 1906. The Rabbi was my grandfather.
BHPL: So, aside from the personal connection, the Rabbi’s work takes place in a fascinating time in Israel’s history.
LH: Yes, and the writing of Rabbi Felshin is a step toward the modern Hebrew spoken in Israel today; a step in the evolution of the language.
BHPL: Closer to home now, that is - closer than Israel or even New York City, tell us about your involvement with Free Acres history.
LH: This past summer The Free Acres Association celebrated its centennial. As part of the celebration I was the docent for an exhibit which I put together in which I displayed dozens of binders containing photographs, letters, and memorabilia dating from the founding of Free Acres in 1910. I had collected and conserved these documents over many years. I also created a history of each leasehold; which shows who had lived on each holding and when. My list gives the names, dates, and information about everyone and anyone who has ever lived in Free Acres so that people coming to the centennial were and are able to find the pages of memorabilia relating to their lives or the lives of their forebears in our community. This is an ongoing project because as you know, history never stops in one place.
BHPL: I believe you sent me a digital copy of that list of Freeholders for our local history archives. The library has a local history collection of books, papers and local newspapers, in hard copy and digitized, and our project is also a work in progress as you noted is always the case with history. I often refer researchers to you if we can’t find the answer at the library. I remember an English biographer of Dylan Thomas spoke with you about the poet’s doctor who lived in Free Acres and you provided information which he previously had never come across.
BHPL: Thank you for visiting the blog today. I’d love to have you back another time to talk further about Free Acres.