Launched as a Yiddish daily in 1897, the Forward began as an important voice for Jewish immigrants, trade unions and "moderate, democratic socialism," according to its website. In the early 1930s, the Forward had a circulation of 275,000 and included the Yiddish radio station WEVD. The English-language version of Forward launched 20 years ago and had a circulation of just over 26,000 in 2000.
Friedman brings a unique perspective to the arts section, which often features reviews by leading scholars and artists. A former Da Ali G Show writer and founding editor of the Jewish culture journal Zeek, Friedman holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale and a master's degree in English literature from Cambridge.
He says the Forward's decision to review books regularly and critically "unfortunately leaves us in the elite few" of newspapers. "Our scope is global, and our coverage runs the cultural gamut from the virtual world to historical Yemeni artifacts to the place of corporations in American daily life," he says. Even if the Forward appears to be a niche publication, it draws on "one of the oldest, broadest and most robust cultural traditions vitally alive today," he says.
Friedman has always been interested in culture and was always conscious of being Jewish, but the two remained fairly separate. "Growing up in Leeds in the north of England pre-internet, it was hard sometimes to think of a multifarious swirl of Jewish cultural traditions that flowed through in and among the larger cultural traditions that I read and learned about," he says.
His role at the Forward requires him to make those connections. "Most of the time, my pages talk about work with Jewish content or by Jews, but sometimes they are just from a specific point of interest to our readers, most of whom are Jews," he says.
Hanging on the walls of his office at the Forward are a drawing by Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley; a photograph of the former (non-Jewish) Leeds and Scotland soccer captain Billy Bremner with the Israeli Jewish referee Abraham Klein; a paper cut postcard by Jacqueline Nicholls; and the cover art for Lara Vapnyar's Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love. "You need your greens," he says.
"It's funny. I enjoy Jewish art a lot, but I have the curse of the impoverished appreciator, which is that I appreciate art beyond my means to procure," Friedman explains. He enjoys the works of 20th century Jewish artists Sol LeWitt and Barnett Newman, but also loves the "Old Testamenty stuff" of 18th century (non-Jewish) painter and poet William Blake.
The walls in his home are a different story altogether. "I don't love the clutter of art, and my home is relatively free of it -- though not free of clutter!" he says. "Ironically I have a Bacon poster up and a Joey Bieber photograph print from the Afghanistan series. Most of the Jewish art at home has been done by my four-year-old daughter."
Asked what non-Jews could stand to gain from studying Jewish art, Friedman says they can learn the same things they could from studying and seeing any art. "The Jewish frame is a powerful and historical one and one which I am a part of, but I wouldn't necessarily say to a non-Jewish friend of mine from France that he should study Jewish art rather than Greek art," he says. "Except that I could tell him what's good in the former and not the latter!"
"I think that the confidence of Jewish artists as Jewish artists is qualitatively different in America and in Israel from the rest of the world, and the flavor of Jewish art in Israel is quite different from that in America," he says. "Apart from that, it's all polymorphous."