Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and a Nineteenth-Century Rabbi on “New York Values”

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.”

Indeed, at least since the swell of immigration from Eastern Europe around the turn of the nineteenth century, New York has been associated with Jews. And yet, while New York -– then New Amsterdam –- was the first place where Jews lived in what became the United States, it is far from the only city where they have resided.[1] Many American Jews have lived outside of New York, more than a few of whom have cast their own aspersions on the City.

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.”[2] 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.

Here Wise began to reveal his own investments in the critique. Impertinent laymen at every congregation -– apart from the reform Emanuel congregation –- had sabotaged their Jewish community, he argued, preventing the city’s Jews from employing real rabbis and from properly educating their children, who knew “as much of our Bible as of the Vedas.” At the same time, New York Jews had the nerve to declare themselves “orthodox” and to reject Wise’s efforts at national cooperation and religious reform. Indeed, Wise was in the midst of a political struggle of his own, his wounds fresh from his failures one month earlier at the Cleveland Conference. This was the much-anticipated first gathering of American Jewish religious leaders and was intended to inaugurate a new era of organization and standardization within a community that was dizzyingly mobile, diverse, and low on both resources and authority. Its sole product was a compromise platform affirming only belief in the Bible and the Talmud. Few were pleased, either with the content of the platform or with its attempt at religious authority, and it was followed by a flurry of polemic and critique. It was in this context that Wise wrote about New York and began to conceive of American Judaism as regionally –- and morally –- divided.[3] Twenty years later, in his Reminiscences, he still understood it this way: "The storm which denuded my tree of hope of its blossoms broke in the East. Protests against the resolutions of the conference were published in Baltimore, Charleston, and New York" (my emphasis).[4]

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

Amidst political infighting and bitter disappointment, then, Wise found geographical caricature and vilification to be a tempting, if not necessarily effective, strategy, as it was for Cruz during Thursday night’s melee. Wise’s take-down of New York is part of a classic tradition of American political rhetoric then, but it also has other lessons. For one, it shows that the equation of Jews with “New York values” is not natural or universal, no matter what those values are determined to be or how they are judged.

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.

In an election year where two candidates have thick New York accents and many others boast -– or hide -– ties to the city, it is fair for voters to ask, What are the real values of New York –- and of the nation? Because ultimately, come primary season, we are all going to have to ask ourselves, Who should be considered “great and good”? And who should be classed among the “little big-men”?

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.

[1] 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).

[2] "The Little Big-Men of New York," Israelite, November 23, 1855, 164-5.

[3] 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).

[4]Reminiscences (Chicago: L. Wise and company, 1901), 317. They were originally published in his German-language periodical, Die Deborah, in 1874.