When Batya arrives in America, fresh off the boat as it were, she learns that her family’s name, Breittleman, will be changed to Bright. At first she is dismayed by the change. After all, she’s had to leave her home under dire circumstances, and has come to a place she finds unfamiliar and inhospitable in the extreme. The loss of her name is just one more indignity.

I’ve recently been made aware that the widespread changing of immigrants’ names at Ellis Island was less a decision on the part of the immigration officials and instead was one that the immigrants themselves made. In my family’s story, however, I have reason to doubt it happened quite like that. My maternal grandmother, Toibe Breittleman (yes, I used my ancestral name) had, like so many other women, remained behind in Russia while her husband went to America alone. The plan was to earn the money for her passage and that of their three children, one of whom was my grandfather. But when she finally did come here, she came with her children and no husband waiting for her; he had died in the intervening years. She was very poor (their house in Russia really did have dirt floors, and there was a single coat the three kids took turns wearing). She spoke no English, and never did learn. I find it hard to imagine she would, at that moment, have decided to change her name; I’m guessing she had other things on her mind. And as someone who spoke no English, the name Brightman wouldn’t have even been in her vocabulary. So in her case, it seems likely that the decision was not one she made on her own. And that is the way my grandfather always maintained that Breittleman became Brightman. 

I chose to give this bit of family history to Batya because I felt it would make concrete some of the disorientation she was feeling. But I also decided to make that name change more fluid in terms of her feelings about it. As she learns English and becomes more at home in America, she decides she likes the name, both for its alliterative qualities as well as for its literal meaning. Batya Bright is the girl she grows into being—bright in terms of her intelligence, also her world view, which becomes more and more optimistic. What starts out dim and murky becomes shining and bright, as bright on the jewels on the carousel horses she loves and learns to carve. I can’t think of a better name for her.