The title of this memoir by Aharon Appelfeld refers basically to his almost life-long practice of spending his working day in the cafes of Jerusalem, writing memoirs, short stories, novels, poetry.
In his usual gentle, under-stated style, he describes the many different cafes he has frequented through the years, together with the people he met in them. We get to understand how silent he was, how much he listened, and how he grew to appreciate and love many of the people. He writes about some of the reactions from other writers who could not understand his need to write in noisy, lively cafes while they could work only in solitude and silence - and often terrorized their families into the quietness so necessary to them. We learn the differences between the Jerusalem cafes of yesteryear (quiet, and now all gone) and today (noisy, with loud music), and that he still manages to find new and different ones in which to work. He quietly writes of the characteristics of the old cafes and of the various areas they served, and his pictures are alive so that even those who have never been in Jerusalem can get the feel of places and people. I found myself enjoying these pictures so much that I re-read them again and again, actually seeing Aharon Appelfield sitting at a table for one with his books and papers around him.
When he needed breaks he would go for walks, travelling on foot to many neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, clearly loving and enjoying them all, and being utterly fascinated by the characteristics of each. Sometimes he would walk "down to Meah Shearim. Here, Jewish history had been frozen within the clothes of the living. Since discovering this area, I would return there every week. It became one of my schools for Jews and Jewishness. Here I learned Yiddish from the mouths of young children and from the old people who sat in the synagogues and learned a page of Talmud with a chanting singsong. The sight of children studying like this - just as they learned throughout the generations in Europe - always moves me. In Meah Shearim, the Holocaust isn't mentioned, but it hovers constantly in the background, the warp of memory that begins in the early hours of the morning and carries on throughout the day, until late at night. Here, and perhaps only here, people speak, pray, and study exactly as they used to in the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe. This act of preservation, even if it is bound up in routine and has some annoying aspects - still commands my respect."
I have quoted this tiny bit to indicate the beauty of Appelfeld's feelings and language, his spirit of tolerance, and his enduring need to return to the past, his past. All his work is an intertwining of past and present. A little later he writes these words, which will remain with me forever: "... everything Jewish is dear to me."
He mentions his wife and family, who at times visit him in his various cafes and then go for walks with him. And his re-discovered father who often joins him. Other writers visit, and also walk with him. He has many friends and acquaintances, but his entire life is bound up with the struggle of writing, and he talks of the place that Jerusalem has in his work: He realized in 1998 that when he was torn away in childhood from Czernowitz, the city of his birth, he had taken away all that he held dear and replanted it in Jerusalem. "It's a city that has given me more than a city usually gives. Everything that had been snatched away from me so brutally in my childhood - I would re-discover here in Jerusalem."
Yet he is not a religious Jew in the sense that this is usually meant. As much as he respects Jewish worship, he seldom attends synagogue. Yet he feels that his attitude to life is a religious one, in the sense of seriousness and a deep obligation to art: "I believe art is about creation - and not about the ego, or making an impression, or exuding a sense of superiority toward others. But it is all about calling forth feelings that connect with other people."
This entire book seems to be an inner conversation and reflection. It has left me filled with wonder that there are people who can write as Aharon Appelfeld does. I hope that I've conveyed at least some of the beauty within "A Table for One." It is well worth reading - again and again.