Tag Archives: Immigrants

Reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

by Symi Rom-Rymer

One hundred years ago today, 146 immigrant women, primarily Jewish and Italian, died while trying to escape a fire that raged through the upper floors of the sweatshop where they worked. In closed-off rooms full of highly flammable scrape of fabric and swirls of cigarette smoke, anything could have set off the blaze; its cause has never been determined.

As we commemorate those who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire this week, the tragic aspects often stand out the most: the avoidable deaths, the destitute families left behind and the seemingly heartless factory owners. It is especially chilling to remember that the factory owners themselves were Jewish and had helped to bring over many of the women who were killed in the fire.  They apparently cared enough about their fellow Jews to help them come to America, but not enough to secure their safety once they arrived.

But there were also more positive consequences, which are discussed less frequently. Many key aspects of our social safety net, however imperfect it may be, from building safety regulations to collective bargaining rights to social security, can trace their origins to the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One of the most prominent examples of those who drew lasting lessons from the devastation was Frances Perkins, who later became the first female Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While visiting a friend in Greenwich Village only a few streets away from the factory on the 25th of March, she and her friend heard the fire trucks and the screams of those trapped in the building.  As they stood on the pavement in front of the factory that day, they could do nothing but watch the women jump to their death.  It was a pivotal moment in Perkins’ life and a catalyst for the reforms that she would help to bring about under the FDR administration.  As labor secretary 22 years later, she helped to create social security, unemployment insurance, and legislation on bargaining rights, all institutions that many of us today take for granted.  As  Hilda Solis, the current US secretary of labor, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and its consequences, “Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.”

But much of the work that went into ameliorating the situation for immigrant garment workers, and others, after the fire came from within the Jewish community, not from national legislators. Even prior to 1911, Jewish activists had pushed for changes to sweatshop working conditions.  Many women played an important role in the reforms, among them the 23-year-old Claire Lemlich, who helped to launch the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 that brought about a massive strike in New York’s garment district.

Following the fire, the Jewish labor unions agitated for greater protection for those whom the larger American society had largely ignored: its immigrant laborers and, specifically, its Jewish immigrant laborers.   Because these unions did not let the fire or its causes recede from the public’s mind, they also played a important role in universalizing the experience of immigrants in America and forever changed how non-Jewish Americans saw their Jewish neighbors.  As Richard Greenwald, author of The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York, explained in a recent article in the Forward, “The Triangle fire turned what was considered “a Jewish problem” into a national symbol of reform, and helped move Jews from the margins of society into the mainstream…It seemed to instantly become a national symbol of the dangers of unregulated workplaces and unprotected workers. It was no longer just a Jewish or an immigrant issue. It was an American problem now.”

So where are we today?  Judging from the heated debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining and the traumatic stories from Hispanic and Asian immigrants forced to work in sweatshops in terrible conditions, the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is far from secure.  A century may feel like a long time, but many of the same struggles remain.  Here, on the cusp of the next 100 years, let’s hope that we can continue to absorb and remember the lessons of the past as we move forward towards the future.

What’s In a Name?

By Gabriel Weinstein

For hundreds of years, Ethiopian Jews dreamed of strolling through Jerusalem’s supposed golden streets and celebrating the Sigd festival in its hills. By the late 1970’s, Ethiopians decided that dreaming of Israel no longer sufficed, and embarked on foot to the Promised Land. Scores of Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of reaching Israel through Operation Moses in 1984 after trekking through deserts, skirting Ethiopian border authorities and toiling in unsanitary Sudanese refugee camps. But Ethiopians never dreamed that in Israel, their utopia, they would abandon their Amharic names.

Journalist Ruth Mason explores how Ethiopian immigrants traded their Amharic names, and ultimately a sense of identity, for new Israeli-sounding Hebrew names in her documentary These Are My Names.  The film, which premiered last week at the Jewish Eye World Film Festival in Ashkelon, Israel, expresses the Ethiopian community’s frustration about changing names through interviews with Ethiopian immigrants who gave up their Amharic names. One such immigrant said, “We  were given Hebrew names without thinking about our past.  We were told, ‘You are new people and you will start from the beginning.’”  A woman interviewed in the film was given the name Tziona by her teacher, because she resembled her teacher’s friend. In a Jerusalem Post article, Mason explains Ethiopians’ names have special significance because “They are all named after important events or feelings and emotions, representing something that happened at the time of their birth; it is part of their identity.”

The importance of names to Ethiopian Jews exemplifies a universal aspect of Jewish culture. Beginning in the biblical era, individuals changed their names to correspond with elevated social status or the completion of a notable accomplishment.  The biblical figures Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Joshua all received new names during their lives.  The Book of Samuel makes a distinct connection between an individual’s given name and their personality, proclaiming “Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25).

Several biblical figures’ names, such as Jacob, reflected their character traits or events in their lives. Jacob was named Ya’akov, meaning to usurp, because he clung to his brother Esau’s heel (ekev) during birth, and would later steal his birthright.  After a night of wrestling with God’s angel, Jacob became Yisrael, meaning struggle with God.

Ethiopian immigrants are not the first, nor will they be the last, group of Jews to change their names as an assimilation tactic.  During the Hellenist era, Jews forged new aliases by combining Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek names. Napoleon made European Jews adopt formal last names, giving rise to common popular surnames like Rosenberg and Silverstein.  Jewish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries anglicized their first and last names to fit in.  In 1938, Nazi authorities declared that all Jews in Germany and Austria would be called Sarah or Israel. During the mass aliyahs (migrations) to Palestine, many olim, such as the writer Dan Ben-Amotz, discarded their European names for modern Hebrew names.

What distinguishes the Ethiopian name change phenomenon from its predecessors is its context: It occurred in the Jewish state, while the others occurred in countries where Jews were a marginalized minority.  Whereas Jews in previous eras eventually embraced their foreign aliases, These Are My Names depicts the Ethiopian community’s ambivalence over their name changes.

The assignment of new names to Ethiopians without their consultation or consent breaches the guarantee of citizens’ right to practice their respective linguistic, cultural and educational practices outlined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, Jews perpetuated a cycle of forced identity change that for millennia was used to weaken Jewish identity.

If renaming Ethiopian Jews was intended to promote integration, it has hardly succeeded.  In 2003-04, the percentage of employed, working age Ethiopian men in Israel dropped to 45, down from 54 a decade before.  Most of the Ethiopian community work minimum wage jobs. In a survey of Ethiopians in eight Israeli cities, 45 percent of adults were illiterate.  These Are My Names highlights just one of the major challenges the Ethiopian community confronts in its integration into Israeli society.