Religions and Spirituality

Laurel Hessing, Free Acres Historian and Playwright, Dies at age 81

Laurel Hessing at the plant sale at the Wagner Farm Arboretum. Credits: Sylvia Heerens

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Laurel Hessing, 81, of Berkeley Heights passed away quietly in her sleep Sunday, November 19, 2017 at home after a three and a half year battle with cancer. She was surrounded by family and loved ones.

She was born in Queens, New York on February 25, 1936 and  lived in Berkeley Heights since 1939.  She earned a BA from Rutgers University, and was awarded the Rutgers Achievement Award in Comparative Literature. She was a playwright with several of her plays have been produced by the Theater For The New City in New York ("The Little Prince", “The Golden Bear”, “Sketching Utopia”, and “The Further Adventures of Uncle Wigly.”) She was also a poet, and for over 30 years, she had been an insurance claims handler and licensed insurance broker and retired in 2006. 

She was a member of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center of Summit, NJ and its choir.  She was also the chairman of the Free Acres Historical and Archive Committee in Berkeley Heights. 

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The family asks that donations in her memory be made to the Theater For The New City, She is survived by her beloved husband of 60 years, Sigmar Hessing, of Berkeley Heights, two daughters, Ilana Hessing (Steven Ginsburg), of Yardley, PA., Rachel (Tim) Wintemberg of Berkeley Heights, a son, Ariel Hessing of Greenbrook, a sister, Crystal Field of New York, NY. and two grandchildren, Benjamin Carlos Ginsburg of Chesterfield NH and Alicia Cassandra Wintemberg, of Berkeley Heights, NJ.

Funeral services will be held Wednesday November 22 at 11:30 a.m. at Congregation Ohr Shalom, Summit Jewish Community Center, 67 Kent Place Blvd in Summit. A luncheon at the synagogue will immediately follow the services. Visit Ross' Shalom Chapels website to leave electronic condolences. 

The following was contributed by Laurel's neighbor Sylvia Heerens.

Laurel Hessing came to Free Acres as a child in 1939, spending summers in the house called Walnut Lodge. As a child, Laurel began her participation in literary and dramatic activities in Free Acres, starring as the character Noodle in Noodle and the Witch, still remembered as the  most popular drama of the many put on by the Free Acres Theater Committee in its open air theater on Apple Tree Row. 

She became a full-time, year-round resident of Free Acres in 1960, moving into Walnut Lodge, where she and her husband Shlomo brought up their three children, Ilana, Ariel and Rachel, and where she welcomed visits from her grandchildren, Carlos and Alicia. 

She loved singing in the choir of her synagogue, the Summit Community Center Synagogue, and enjoys many different activities like her book group and the Free Acres Quilters, which after completing one quilt for the Free Acres Centennial, has become the 'doing-everything-else-but-quilting group.' 

Laurel graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Comparative Literature. She also studied in Paris at L'Alliance française, Ecole de langue, and took courses at l'Université de la Sorbonne pour les étudiants étrangers and at l'Ecole de Seine (préparatoire pour l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts).  She was fluent in French, Hebrew and English.

Laurel translated her father-in-law's portrayal of events as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp from the original German. The original document and translation are now in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute. Recently she had been translating the autobiography of her grandfather, Rabbi Uri Felshin, who wrote in Biblical Hebrew. Felshin lived from 1874 to 1947, was the Rabbi in the settlements of Zichron Yacov and Metullah in the early 1900's before the state of Israel, when Palestine, was administered by the Turkish government.

Laurel has written extensively for the theater, including  adaptations, translations, and original plays. A musical version of 'The Little Prince,' based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was presented by the Theater for the New City (TNC) in 1973.  In 2003, Laurel wrote 'The Golden Bear,' produced by Theater for the New City, a musical with score by Arthur Abrams, based upon the novel, 'Jews Without Money' by Michael Gold, a fellow Free Acres resident from 1942 to 1947. 'In The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors,' the beloved character, Uncle Wiggily, introduces two young children, blown into Central Park by Hurricane Katrina, to various colorful New York characters. It was produced by Theater for the New City in 2008 as a verse musical, with music composed by Arthur Abrams, directed and choreographed by Crystal Field.  Laurel worked with David Willinger to translate 'Winter Wedding,' a 1978 farce by Israeli playwright Hannoch Levin about a conflict in an Israeli family between a wedding and a funeral,  that was produced by Theater for the New City in 2011.

Immersing herself in Free Acres history, she was increasingly inspired in the people and events she found there, incorporating their stories into the original works she produced over the years. The Free Acres Pageant, a musical she wrote based on the community, was produced there for its 75th Anniversary in 1985. She wrote 'Sketching Utopia,' produced at Theater for the New City in 2001, with music by Arthur Abrams, a musical drama of the lives of Undena and Ernest Eberlein, who were part of a progressive group of thinkers in Greenwich Village before World War I, joining the writer and activist, Upton Sinclair, in his idealistic community,  Helicon Hall, and later moving to Free Acres, the community founded by Bolton Hall.  Laurel has also published two historical works based on the Free Acres community, the multi-volume, 'The Annotated Anthology of Free Acres Writing' (1992) and 'Treasures of the Little Cabin' (1999).

For many years, Laurel was the heart and soul of the Free Acres Historical and Archives Committee.  On her own, she diligently collected and preserved newsletters, committee minutes, newspaper reports, photographs, books, and residents’ memories, which she has stored in her home. She worked closely with the Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University, which is a repository of early Free Acres material, to facilitate scholars’ access and use of the information in Rutgers holdings of Free Acres papers.

Laurel made a significant contribution to the celebration of Centennial of the Free Acres Association in 2010.  As she related:

“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.”

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