Purim 5776/2016 has come and gone, and the nosh and mussed-up costumes remain. But this year Purim was followed by a very sad memorial in the United States, and particularly in New York City. Yesterday was Purim and today is the anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place on March 25, 1911.

In this fire, 146 people died; 123 women and 23 men. Most of the dead were young Jewish and Italian women, and many were immigrants. It took place in the Asch Building, which still stands is now used as a building within the NYU (New York University) campus. There is a memorial tablet on the building.

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The horror of this fire, which raged through a building full of cloth and other materials that quickly ignited, was multiplied by the fact that the factory owners had locked the exits. Workers died when they jumped to their deaths, when they asphyxiated, when they suffered burns, and all three. The owners were Jewish men, and they survived by running out onto the building's roof and fleeing to a neighboring building. In court they were found guilty on some charges and paid fines.


The great legacy of this fire is that it helped spur workplace safety requirements throughout New York City and elsewhere. Sadly, workers still die every year in other accidents which could have been prevented. In 1991 more than 20 workers at a poultry factory died in a fire that had certain similarities (and drew comparisons) to the Triangle case.Still, the awareness of workers' safety and rights are a much bigger issue in America, as a result of Triangle.

Beyond commemorating this sad event in this essay, I do see some sad links between the story of Purim and the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Both revolved around the lives of women, and Jewish women, to be specific. Both resulted in improvements in our lives. However, one focuses the spotlight on a particular brave Jewish woman, Queens Esther. Triangle does not really focus its lens on a particular woman; the women in this tragedy are seen as a group. But unlike Purim, which has no photographic evidence, Triangle has photographic evidence in plenty: before and after photographs that document the pre-fire workplace and the awful aftermath, of bodies, smoldering remains, and more.

In Judaism, we do not focus on one particular person as the impetus of our religion, as do Christianity and Islam, and even Buddhism. Judaism does have its patriarchs and matriarchs and prophets but we do not worship them as deities. Queen Esther is not worshiped on Purim, although she is celebrated. Likewise, the horrors of the Triangle Factory Fire do not focus on the story of one woman; a group suffered and we feel the pain of the situation through their experience. A similar comparison could be drawn with the Holocaust, in which we remember the six million, and although we may focus at times on the story of one particular person or family during the Shoah, we see the events as the experience of a group.

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