Switzerland’s frum Fawlty Towers

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 4, 2008

n a Friday night in August, the shul in the Edelweiss Hotel in St Moritz is packed with black-clad men swaying to the Shabbat service.

An overflow of some 20 men sit in the adjacent lounge which doubles as the women's section, at that hour still devoid of female presence. All of a sudden, a bony elderly man wearing a dark suit and homburg bursts in, shouting in a mixture of Yiddish and Shwitzerdeutsch, the local dialect.

"Kein ist ezras noshim [this is the women's section]," he screams, gesticulating wildly. Few move, even after he repeats his performance. Most have seen similar tantrums before from the hotel's owner and regard his combination of Orthodox piety and Swiss meticulousness with amusement - and as much an establishment as the 130-year-old hotel itself.

Leopold "Poldi" Bermann, now in his mid-70s, was born into the business. His parents ran what is billed as "the world's oldest kosher hotel" and nicknamed Poldi Towers by British guests . But if anything, Herr Bermann's brand of mad comedy exceeds that of Basil Fawlty. On one memorable occasion, a guest who complained too loudly about the Shabbat cheesecake found the following day's packed lunch, prepared by the hotel's kitchen, consisted only of hunks of the offending cake.

"Sometimes I think he goes mad just for fun," says David, from London, who first came here as a child some 50 years ago. "He can also be disarmingly charming. It's part of the tradition."

Outside the Jewish world, St Moritz is synonymous with the international jet-set. But for some rich European frummers, the town has for decades been their main holiday venue.

Yet the shul, the kosher kitchens, the mikveh, the rabbi-in-residence who delivers a daily Torah lecture, and the next-door grocers with a kosher section are not the only reasons they continue to come to St Moritz. Nowadays there are dozens of similar establishments throughout the world, but St Moritz continues to attract families who have been coming here for at least three generations. As families accumulate wealth, many buy holiday flats in the town, and the Edelweiss is now an unofficial community centre.

The crowd has grown "blacker" over recent years, with the more modern Orthodox finding other resorts. But there is a distinct holiday feeling, with teenagers slipping off to the cinema or casino and couples romancing in the less-chaperoned atmosphere. Maybe, in a few years, they will be back in St Moritz with their own children.

Last updated: 1:44pm, September 4 2008