What’s Jewish About … Hit Sitcoms ‘Friends’ and ‘Grace and Frankie’?
What's Jewish About...Opinion

What’s Jewish About … Hit Sitcoms ‘Friends’ and ‘Grace and Frankie’?

You may know Marta Fran Kauffman as the co-creator of the hit sitcoms “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie,” but did you know what’s Jewish about her?

Robyn Spizman Gerson is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including “When Words Matter Most.” She is also a communications professional and well-known media personality, having appeared often locally on “Atlanta and Company” and nationally on NBC’s “Today” show. For more information go to www.robynspizman.com.

Marta Fran Kauffman is an Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning television writer, producer and showrunner, best known as the co-creator of the hit sitcoms “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie.”

She is also the co-creator of “Hava Nagila,” a documentary about one of the world’s most famous Jewish songs. Kauffman’s iconic shows have stolen the hearts of viewers around the world. Her quick wit and bright ideas keep her busy in Los Angeles, where she volunteers at her synagogue and reminisces about her grandmother Ida Cohen’s matzah balls. According to Kauffman, “Grace and Frankie” will be back for season seven sometime in 2022.

Tell us about growing up in a Conservative Jewish family in Philadelphia.
I grew up in Broomall, Philadelphia, and went to Synagogue Beth-El and Camp Ramah in the Poconos from the age of 12 until being a counselor. It was life-changing, as I grew up in an area that was antisemitic. I identify as a Jew and, going to Camp Ramah, I was not judged and could be who I was and sing Jewish songs. My father was in the plumbing and heating supply business. My parents’ first language was Yiddish, and my mother kept a kosher home until the day she died. During the Depression, when my mom was 16, she danced in a mafia-owned Jewish nightclub to help support her family.

You graduated with a bachelor’s in theater from Brandeis University in 1978. Tell us about that.
I chose to attend college at Brandeis — I knew I’d be around other Jews and it would feel like camp. I knew I wanted to be in theater and my college friend and co-creator of “Friends” David Crane, was in a student production with me.

How did you get your first big break?
There was one moment that I feel changed my life. I had moved to New York and had multiple jobs, from working at a law firm, a kosher deli and also writing for a game show. In 1985, David Crane and I got an agent, who is still my agent. After seeing the show “Personals,” a musical revue, my agent asked us if we wanted to write for television. David and I teamed up and “Friends” was born, based on a group of friends we hung out with, before we moved to L.A. Our friends were our family, which was the heart of what “Friends” was about. Living in L.A., I saw a place called the Insomnia Café and it was a cool place to have people hanging out. David and I started talking and partially drew our experiences on that.

What’s Jewish about “Friends,” which debuted 25 years ago and is a beloved iconic television series?
I’m Jewish and I believe I have a sense from my Jewish upbringing and was educated and encouraged to live my life based on that set of human ethics and morals. My hope is that that comes through in the work. We have Jewish characters in “Friends,” which is great. The discussion today is do you have to be Jewish to play someone Jewish ,and the school of thought and the direction is yes. It is better if you hire someone who knows that experience and we couldn’t have done better than the actors we cast. I also named some of the characters after people in my life. In “Friends,” I named one of Rachel’s boyfriends Billy Dreskin. It was the scene where Rachel slept with Billy and, in real life Billy is a rabbi!

What’s Jewish about “Grace and Frankie,” which you also wrote?
I had gone on a trip to Israel with the nonprofit Women in Entertainment, where I met Marcy Ross and she had just started to work at Skydance. She mentioned that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin wanted to do TV. I thought she meant they wanted to do it together, and I called their agents to see if they’d do a show. Twenty minutes later I got a yes. My daughter Hannah KS Canter, who works with me, came up with the idea for the show as we were driving to Malibu one day. She suggested a series with two women who don’t like each other and whose husbands get married, which became “Grace and Frankie.” As with “Friends,” the stars aligned.

What is your all-time favorite book, Jewish food and Chanukah gift?
I treasure my grandparents’ shabbat candlesticks. I found this Israeli artist who makes Jewish ritual objects and hides them in other objects, harkening back to the time when you could not be Jewish out loud. I recall how my parents collected Judaica art and paintings of rabbis and, of all things, clowns!

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Yom Kippur is my favorite, because it strips me bare. I find it to be cleansing and deeply meaningful. I’m someone who likes to reflect. I work hard and this is the one day I sit quietly and listen to my insides and am part of the Jewish community all doing the same thing.

How did the pandemic change your Jewish life?
I don’t find Zoom prayer particularly meaningful. I’m sitting by myself with a computer, and I miss the community and hearing the voices. COVID has had a profound effect on me, and I’ve stayed very involved in committees and joined my synagogue board at Ikar-LA.

What was your favorite advice your grandmother told you growing up?
My grandmother used to say, “You can’t tell your heart who to love.” And, “If your husband is mad at you, don’t yell. Wait until he’s calm and then you can yell.”

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