Marta Kauffman and Roberta Grossman are as dissimilar as two working women can be: Kauffman, creator of a little sitcom called “Friends,” is well-off, well-connected and well-known. Grossman, a documentary filmmaker most people have never heard of, is cerebral and low-key and often has to scramble for money to make a living. When we meet, Kauffman has just returned from Paris. She wears elegant attire and glistening jewels. Grossman is the hippie in splashy beads and sandals.
But where they diverge in lifestyle, they come together creatively, sharing a passion for obscure Jewish tales that may at first sound jejune. Their current collaboration, a documentary about the history of the song “Hava Nagila,” has not been the sexiest pitch for fundraising.
Even Kauffman was indifferent when Grossman first told her about the project. “I thought, ‘I want to do something that hits harder,’ ” Kauffman said. Tracing the roots of Judaism’s most popular Chasidic niggun didn’t sound like a topic that would sustain her interest throughout the long and arduous process of documentary filmmaking. But Grossman felt she was on to something, “I was not discouraged,” she said, and won Kauffman over with a show of early footage.
“She’s dogged,” Kauffman said.
Kauffman and Grossman met when their daughters were in preschool together at Temple Israel of Hollywood. But they really got to talking a few years later, when their girls played in the same soccer league. Right there on the sidelines, they discovered they shared the same childhood hero: the parachuting poetess Hannah Senesh, who tried to save Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz but was caught, tortured, tried for treason and killed. They decided to make a documentary about Senesh, a mother-daughter love story, emblematic of how they’d met, but also an homage to the Senesh women, whose bond was unthinkably tested.
At the time, Kauffman was transitioning through a career turning point. “I had hit menopause, ‘Friends’ had ended, and I was thinking, ‘There’s a last chapter here, and I want to do stuff that has meaning,’ ” Kauffman said over bisque at Kate Mantilini. “Making people laugh is a wonderful thing, but I wanted to go deeper.”
Grossman was brimming with ideas but needed a champion. Kauffman could bring both cash and cache to the project. “When I would ask to interview Jewish celebrities, I’d be sent to an assistant and told, ‘They’re not interested’ — but when Marta calls or her agent calls, it opens doors,” Grossman said. Kauffman also opened her checkbook, providing the seed money to start production.
They premiered “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” in 2008 to sizable acclaim. The film screened 300 times around the world. It aired on the Independent Lens series on PBS, won the audience award at 13 Jewish film festivals, received a Prime Time Emmy nomination and was short-listed for the documentary Oscar nomination in 2009.
“She’ll never be as well-known as Anne Frank,” Grossman said of Senesh. “But she’s more well-known than she would have been if we hadn’t made the film.”
That first success cemented their partnership.
“I had never done documentary before,” Kauffman said. “And I didn’t know what the process would be like. I remember going in with my first set of notes feeling incredibly excited about the prospect of making something good even better.”
“That’s very modest,” Grossman interrupted. “It really was not good. But Marta came in [with her] unbelievable sense of story and structure.”
With two women in charge, Kauffman said they didn’t have to deal with Hollywood’s usual misogyny. And without male leadership, she said, there was “less ego involved.” But what about the cutthroat competition that can occur between women, who are sometimes known to claw and catfight their way to the top?
“There’s nothing for us to compete over,” Grossman said insouciantly. “We’re in really different worlds.”
“It’s about a vision,” Kauffman added. “It’s not about career tracks. There’s honesty without cruelty, and there’s vision without ego. It’s not about Roberta saying, ‘I’m the director!’ and me saying, ‘Hey, I did “Friends”!’ ”
The women have both been surprised by the success of their funny/serious split: “Documentary filmmakers are not cheerful people,” Grossman said. “They make films because they want to address a wrong, make change or tell a story that otherwise wouldn’t be told.”
Their second collaboration, “Hava Nagila: What Is It?” probably falls into that category. But a trailer tells a compelling story that unites patrons of Canters Deli on Fairfax to dancing Chasids in 18th century Ukraine. Grossman describes the film as “a window into Jewish history.”
“It’s a profound exploration of Jewish spirituality and the role of music in Jewish life, and the role of joy in Jewish life, and what does that mean for a people who have experienced so much hardship and so much tragedy?” Grossman said.
While their goals for the film differ — Grossman hopes it becomes a history lesson, Kauffman hopes it entertains — they are equally earnest about illuminating the “national anthem of Jewishness,” as the song is called in the film. And for now, both seem content to work on smaller-scale projects that aren’t likely to be glamorous, glorious or gross gazillions.
“Are you asking me if I care that I’m never gonna make a cent in my whole life?” Grossman said with a hint of mordant realism. “If I can participate in making a lasting historical document with high production value that people actually want to see, I think that’s a life well-spent.”
And how does Kauffman feel about going from prime time to parochial?
Just fine, she said. This way she can take on a mix of projects — currently, she is also producing “Project Five,” a five-part series about breast cancer that will air on Lifetime with segments directed by Jennifer Aniston and Demi Moore. Her industry colleagues, she said, are befuddled by her newfound obsession with Jewish themes. “I get a lot of, ‘Huh.’ ”
But Kauffman genuinely glows when her collaborator says, “Marta has helped make my life from what it could have been to what it is,” Grossman said. “And that’s a tremendous gift.”