לויט די לייענערס | Readers Respond: Lia Friedman reads “The Debt” in an era of precarious reproductive rights

Lia Friedman


In geveb is for­tu­nate to have a devot­ed and diverse read­er­ship who read the texts we pub­lish deeply and thought­ful­ly. We are always curi­ous to know more about how you read the texts we pub­lish from the con­tem­po­rary per­spec­tives of your own lives and work (with­in or out­side the field of Yid­dish Stud­ies), and how those per­spec­tives inform the ways in which you inter­act with, inter­pret, and are chal­lenged and inspired by the texts we publish. 

In this new occa­sion­al series, we ask read­ers to write respons­es to texts pub­lished in our jour­nal that res­onate with them in some way, per­son­al­ly or pro­fes­sion­al­ly. This arti­cle is the first response in this series. If you have read some­thing on our site that you would like to respond to, or if you would like to sug­gest some­one who might be inter­est­ed in respond­ing to a piece on our site, please con­tact us. The response may be in the style of the analy­sis below, but we also encour­age read­ers to respond in oth­er styles and forms. Our ulti­mate aim is to let our read­er­ship express them­selves and share their read­ing expe­ri­ence, to cre­ate a pub­lic dis­course around the mate­r­i­al we pub­lish. We are espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in respons­es from read­ers who may not think of them­selves as writ­ing from with­in the field of Yid­dish Stud­ies; we hope this series offers a space to explore how Yid­dish cul­ture and schol­ar­ship on Yid­dish res­onate out­side the aca­d­e­m­ic field. 

In the essay below, Lia Fried­man reads Blume Lem­pel’s The Debt,” trans­lat­ed by Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub, in light of con­tem­po­rary rep­re­sen­ta­tions of, and con­ver­sa­tions and pol­i­cy about, abor­tion. She writes, My inter­est in this piece par­tial­ly stemmed from tim­ing — I read and respond­ed to it in the dizzy­ing weeks after the elec­tion and Wom­en’s March. As a life­long advo­cate for wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights and a stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture, I was intrigued by Lem­pel’s uncon­ven­tion­al treat­ment of an abor­tion story.”

A recent immigrant, laid off from her job and facing a family member’s unanticipated and insurmountable healthcare costs, seeks an illegal abortion. A contemporary reader might know what to expect, based on depictions of abortion in cinema and television, 1 1 See this fascinating overview of depictions of abortion in cinema, or read this review of Obvious Child (2014), which Amanda Hess, writing in Slate, called “the most honest abortion movie I’ve ever seen.” as well as political discourse; these narratives tend to be invested in both the alleged dangers of the (incredibly safe) procedure as well as narratives of internal conflict based on perceived moral stakes. Yet Blume Lempel’s story “The Debt,” which takes place in Paris between the two World Wars, feels preternaturally contemporary precisely because it depicts this taboo subject without resorting to many of the tropes employed frequently even today.

“The Debt” follows an unnamed female narrator-protagonist surrounded by other anonymous patients of a prewar abortion clinic. In the very first paragraph, Lempel writes that the protagonist “was not thinking of the danger ahead,” setting the tone for the rest of the story. Dispensing with the clichés, Lempel instead offers a new script for this subject that focuses on specific details, images, and sensations.

Lempel, who emigrated from Galicia, Poland to Paris in 1929 and fled to New York on the eve of the Second World War, wrote against a background of repression. The story does not explicitly name the political reality that underlies its character’s situation: the abortion the narrator obtains is certainly illegal. After World War I, France’s government, concerned about a decreased population and hoping to bolster the birth rate, passed a 1920 law that suppressed information on contraception and declared all forms of birth control to be abortion and in 1923 prohibited the import of any contraception. However, before World War II, Parisian law enforcement took a relatively lax approach to the laws on the books. Women of means—especially rich English women—traveled to Paris to obtain illegal abortions; one source estimates 50,000 illegal abortions in Paris each year through the 1930s. During the Nazi Occupation, however, the Vichy régime made abortion a capital offense and between 1940 and 1942 executed a number of providers.

Abortion narratives tend to put their protagonists in a tight spot. They imagine all options as bad and morally fraught. “The Debt” has a premise that could easily go down this road, but Lempel subverts expectations.

For instance, many abortion narratives involve crooked or predatory doctors working under unsafe conditions; this story features female nurses in what seems like a well-run and well-trafficked professional medical setting. 2 2 We live in a world where obtaining an abortion is increasingly difficult- one thing that strikes me about this story is the what I perceive as the safety and ease of the abortion. There are no back alleys, rusty instruments, predatory doctors. And yet this is 100 years in the past. Furthermore, the role of nurse is aspirational for the narrator. Early on, we learn that “[s]he herself had always wanted to be a nurse,” and at the very end of the story, after reminiscing about an encounter from her childhood, she breaks back into the present by asking, “‘Is it still possible for me to become a nurse?’ ‘Of course it is,’ the nurse answered. ‘Two years of study and this vomit basin will be yours. With all the trimmings.’” Certainly this passage contrasts the fantasy of becoming a nurse with its less-than-romantic reality, but this answer midwifes a world of new possibility for the narrator.

While the story does not necessarily indicate that the protagonist will go on to achieve her potential, Lempel’s choice of language and imagery suggests a fertile ground for her development. The theme of reproduction permeates “The Debt”: the literal subject matter of abortion, print metaphors, water/womb imagery, and repetition of words and phrases throughout the story. Our narrator leads us through her process of birthing a creative identity rather than a baby—as an author, she’s sometimes ungainly in her use of figurative language, but proves fluid and resourceful. A dizzying slew of metaphors during the abortion procedure reflects the narrator’s tendency to reshape and reframe her identity. Our narrator goes from being light on the water (the strip of light coming out of nothingness is a startling fiat lux—or, rather, Yehi or), to the water itself—then the water becomes the calm and a curtain further estranges her from reality.

One category of metaphor to which the narrator often returns is print; when we first meet her, “She’d left all her doubts and self-pity in the sixth floor garret where they’d first taken root inside her, had abandoned them there like a stack of unsigned poems.” The “unsigned” alludes to the illegitimacy of her pregnancy, rather than describing her “doubts and self-pity.” She recycles the images of the clinic, as objects and actions in the story percolate into its telling. Where first “the nurse placed an ether mask over her nose” for the procedure, later, the nurse’s steps “swaddled thought like ether masks.” Even as the narrator lies passively, her constant adoption and incorporation of the scenes make her the creative agent in the storyline.

The narrator’s feeling of cultural estrangement filters into the narrative strategy of the story. While the third person narration clearly belongs to our unnamed protagonist—it incorporates her unfiltered thoughts—her feelings of ostracization prevent her from fully owning up to her story and using first person. She only ever describes herself in estranged terms; for instance, she describes the nurses “speaking of someone in whom she had not the slightest interest. They were talking about the girl lying on the table: such a young thing, four months pregnant.” Use of free indirect discourse blurs the boundaries between the different female characters at the clinic, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding identity. The lack of names lends itself to a repetition of pronouns, creating a chorus of she, her, hers.

Many of the sentences and descriptions could be about anyone and no one, strengthening the sense that our narrator tries on, imitates, and discards different identities. The only names used are the narrator’s account of when she proposes a sex-for-money transaction to an acquaintance and imagines the kind of French libertine who might do such a thing: “the idea entered her head unexpectedly; the words emerged from her mouth as if spoken not by her but by someone with the worldview of a Claudette or a Simone.” The narrator reveals her feelings of cultural estrangement several times—earlier, she thinks of her fellow patient: “The redhead was French. She had the art of love in her blood. She, on the other hand, was nothing more than an imitation, making a fool of herself by aping others.” The narrator compares the redhead to the subject of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque,” an Orientalist portrait of a concubine in a harem. The allusion to this painting, much like the “unsigned poems,” again displaces the description onto an object it less aptly modifies: our narrator, not the redhead, is the exotic foreigner selling sex to French people. Furthermore, Ingres painted “Odalisque” not out of direct experience with the subject matter, but to capitalize on the popularity of Orientalist art—and, notably, to pay a debt.

The theme of repetition or imitation recurs frequently, especially in relation to France and Frenchness. European attitudes towards Jews frequently depicted them as interlopers, borrowers, polyglots. The narrator’s Jewishness isn’t made evident through the story’s content, only through the language of its telling: perhaps lost in translation reading this story in English is that our foreigner in France writes in her mother tongue. Only the nurse’s directions appear in French; everything else is mediated through the narrator’s Yiddish. The French thus appears foreign in the context of the story, rather than Yiddish or Yiddishisms peppering a native-tongue document with “exotic” flavor.

While women are clearly the story’s locus, Lempel weaves in subtle and subversive critiques of men and the socio-politico-religious structures that systematically exculpate them. The story’s first male image appears in the narrator’s memory of a summer morning at the Sacre Coeur Basilica, which she recalls during her procedure. As she lies in the clinic, the narrator envisions the sacred Roman Catholic pilgrimage site; the highest point in the city of Paris and the site of the Paris Commune, the Basilica was constructed as a conservative response to Montmartre mores and revolution. The narrator’s memory begins with “the soft golden fingers of the sun” touching the Basilica and “groping…towards the statue of the boy, from whose stone member a falling stream was trickling.” As the narrator waits for anesthesia to take effect, she imagines that she “placed her mouth under the innocent member of the stone boy so that the cold water would spurt out over her face, her whole body.” The pairing of the Catholic cathedral and the abortion clinic is jarring to begin with, and Lempel’s description of the narrator drinking from the stone penis makes it even more transgressive. The descriptor “innocent” for “stone member” calls up thoughts of all the guilty ones—the reason the women of “The Debt” lie in the abortion clinic in the first place. Lempel enumerates them: the narrator’s “friend,” the redhead’s attentive lover, the talker’s nightmarish husband who wants to make love constantly. This subtle critique embedded in the religious imagery rejects tired virgin/whore and sacred/profane binaries, and instead presents a more neutral and ambiguous landscape.

This story is remarkable for several reasons—particularly the relative ease and safety with which the protagonist obtains the abortion. There are no back alleys, no coat hangers, no predatory doctors seeking obscene sums or sexual favors. Of course, while the narrator may not focus on the dangers ahead, the reader knows that different kinds of peril really loomed for her in a few short years. Did she succeed in becoming a nurse, and if so, would she have been more vulnerable as a Jew or as a nurse performing abortion? Did she, like Lempel, flee France before the war? As Nazi Germany, Vichy France, and countless other authoritarian regimes can attest, and as Americans—not to mention the millions of women worldwide affected by the global gag rule—are rediscovering under the Trump regime, women’s reproductive autonomy is one of fascism’s first casualties. In an era in which access to safe and legal abortion is beginning to look increasingly out of reach, this story can instruct us in how to write about it. No clichés. Just experience.

“The Debt” was originally published on In geveb in September 2016. The story also appears in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a new collection of Blume Lempel’s short fiction published by Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press in November 2016.

Friedman, Lia. “לויט די לייענערס | Readers Respond: Lia Friedman reads "The Debt" in an era of precarious reproductive rights.” In geveb, April 2017:
Friedman, Lia. “לויט די לייענערס | Readers Respond: Lia Friedman reads "The Debt" in an era of precarious reproductive rights.” In geveb (April 2017): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Lia Friedman

Lia Friedman lives in the Hudson Valley, where she writes, edits, and works with wonderful local young people. She is teaching a course on botany and human sexuality and learning how to cultivate mushrooms. She calls her elected representatives as frequently as sanity allows.