When I first heard that The Jewish Daily Forward was officially changing its name to just “The Forward,” at first I didn’t think much of the news. “The Forward” was how I always thought of the paper, for short, anyway, much like people call The New York Times just “The Times.”
But then I started to think about it, and I realized that for me, the word “Jewish” has started to come with unspoken assumptions; who is “Jewish” enough becomes aligned with who is “pro-Israel” enough. The Forward reports on Israel, of course, but it seems to manage to do so in a way that commands respect. And that is no easy maneuver in the intensely polarized current media world.
In a world where Vogue’s choice of a Palestinian-American cover model for its anniversary issue gets everyone all riled up and an Israeli model’s Facebook posts on the conflict are put under scrutiny, it is probably no surprise that BBC reporters and CNN anchors can face professional consequences for making any kind of statement about the conflict. In the Jewish media universe, as the Forward itself reported, even the wire services newspapers rely on are subject to politicization—the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), founded in 1917, has new, more vocally right-leaning competition as of 2011 in the Jewish News Service.
One might expect a certain flavor of conservatism from The Forward, a 118-year-old legacy newspaper, that was originally (and still is) published in Yiddish, a language that few people speak. It would be easy to lump the Forward into the shrinking-but-still-present national network of Jewish print newspapers, some affiliated with local Jewish Federation organizations, serving an older and older population. Indeed, for some readers, dropping the “Daily” might be almost as big a deal as dropping the “Jewish.” That move comes with a sleek new website redesign, and a shifting of emphasis toward an “online-first” reporting strategy.
But actually, the Forward has long stood out among the Jewish media landscape for actually being progressive, in that it does not prescribe ideology but actually reports stories. As Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall wrote last year about former Forward editor turned columnist J. J. Goldberg’s coverage of Israel during the Gaza violence, “Whatever you think should be happening, reading his dispatches gives you a very good read into what is happening.”
That’s what newspapers should do, right? The news is not the “Jewish” news, it’s just the news.
The renaming seems to me a recognition not only of journalistic realities but of cultural ones. Here my best example is also an item of full disclosure: The Forward published my personal essay about how not-Jewish I am, despite my Jewish heritage, and what other Jewish publication would do that? I am a prime example of the audience that the Forward relaunch is designed to appeal to, that is, cultural Jews, or half-Jews, or converted Jews, those collectively known as “Jew-ish” or, as I call myself in the story, “a Jewish none.” I’m part of that statistical group discovered by the 2013 Pew Center study that rocked the Jewish community, the one that reported that one in five of those respondents identifying as Jewish, also now describe themselves as having “no religion.”
To be Jewish without religion may seem like a paradox to some, but to 22% of us, it’s perfectly natural. Religion is a matter of personal seeking and personal choice, but Jewishness is a matter of identity. The Forward’s new motto, “Ask Why,” seems to speak to both that reportorial inquisitiveness and the “seeking” sensibility of those Jew-ish nones: interrogate every preconceived notion, don’t stay put in one idea or one ideology, seek truth wherever you go.
No doubt there will be those who see the renaming of a venerable Jewish cultural institution as a betrayal, a genericizing, equivalent by analogy to Anglicizing your Jewish last name when you came through Ellis Island, the Goldfarb to the Gold, the Feinstein to the Fine: The Jewish Daily Forward is neither Jewish, nor Daily! Discuss! Sure, legacy media and social organizations can evolve from their roots without changing their names. Just how “Christian” is the Young Mens’ Christian Association, aka the YMCA? Or how “Christian Scientist” is The Christian Science Monitor?
But I prefer to see the renaming not as an erasure of history or identity, but as a harkening back to a pre-polarization legacy of Jewish progressivism that one can hope will make a reappearance in the era of the Jewish-but-not-Jewish. Long ago, the paper was known, in Yiddish, as “The Forverts.” Back then, the word “Jewish” in the name would have been ridiculously redundant. Maybe it can seem so again.