By Shari Rabin
At the most recent Republican Presidential Primary Debate, Ted Cruz made news for his attack on Donald Trump and his so-called “New York values.” These, he argued, obviously included being “socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro–gay marriage [and] focus[ing] around money and the media.”The blogosphere was immediately in an uproar, many wondering if “New York” was code for “Jewish.”
One of the more eloquent –- and humorous –- attacks on “New York values” in American Jewish history came from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leading American rabbi of the nineteenth century. In 1855, eleven years in America and one year at a pulpit in Cincinnati, he wrote a withering castigation entitled “The Little Big-Men of New York.” Published in the newspaper he edited, The Israelite, the piece argued that New York consisted of “villages and village vices without the virtues and the purity of the villagers.”
The first problem was that the city’s residents were ambitious but uneducated, which meant, “there is no place in the world more suitable for humbug and Barnum, for quacks and cheats of all descriptions, than the city of New York.” Second, “two thirds of the New York people are slaves of the fashion, the sole mind runs in this direction.” Whether the object was home furnishes or clothing, churches or writers, “the noisiest fellows get the most customers, only because his voice above all is heard.” Third, Wise complained about self-deceit, especially in politics and finance. The large crowds at Tammany Hall, the massive sums of money on Wall street, and the never-ending stream of people crowding the City streets convinced locals “that the fate of this country lies in the hands of New York, although the truth runs to the contrary. ‘I am a New Yorker, hence I must know it best.’ This is a raging plague of the city.”
The City’s Jews were by no means free of “little big-men,” Wise admitted, laying out the characteristics of the type:
[He] has a voice, a say so and a part to act in every thing; is saucy, arrogant and impertinent on every question; understands better everything and could make it much better than the seven wise men of Greece; scorns at every scheme not originating with him, tramples upon every idea unconceivable to his mind, despises instruction, ridicules the sublime, attacks recklessly whomever and whatever stands above him and is fully fashionable.
It also raises relevant questions about the dangers and possibilities of the City and its crowds. Despite his bitterness, even Wise was wiling to concede that not all New Yorkers were bad:
The truly great and good men of the city are the more admirable and esteemable for their firmness… We are often agreeably surprised by the voices of better sentiments, nobler endeavors and holier aspirations, now and then rising from that vast chaos of human beings.
Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. You can read her last post, about nineteenth century Jewish boarding-houses, here.
 Recently a three-volume history of New York was published by NYU Press. Deborah Dash Moore, ed. City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York (New York: NYU Press, 2012).
 "The Little Big-Men of New York," Israelite, November 23, 1855, 164-5.
 On Reform Judaism, including the Cleveland Conference, see Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 1995).
Reminiscences (Chicago: L. Wise and company, 1901), 317. They were originally published in his German-language periodical, Die Deborah, in 1874.