An old world holiday

Two kosher, family-owned hotels in Switzerland may close if youth don't follow in their fathers' footsteps.

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August 16, 2005 17:09

 
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For more than a century, the lush, rolling basin of Switzerland's Engadin Valley and the wooded majesty of tranquil Arosa have drawn tourists from around the world. Year-round health spas, walking tours, hiking and horseback-riding in these remote locales more easily accessible by train than by car make Switzerland's resort towns appealing destinations during summer or winter. Their popularity is second only to chocolate and cheese fondue in the Swiss Alps region. But these mountain getaways also offer something for Jewish tourists that is rarely found in other Swiss retreats kosher hotels. The Hotel Edelweiss in St. Moritz and the Hotel Metropol in Arosa are Jewish sanctuaries for the observant community. And while they are barely two-star destinations at four-star prices, each is the only game in town if you want kosher dining and space for simchas or daily religious services and snow-melt mikveot (ritual baths). These family-run havens inspire fierce loyalty among their guests, sometimes drawing multiple generations of families from England, France, Denmark, Israel and the United States. Each hotel is run by a son who took over from his father, carrying on a tradition so ingrained that locals can readily give directions to either hotel. Yet each family struggles with the future viability of its establishment. The kosher travel business is beginning to move in the direction of vacation flats, with kitchens that can easily be kashered by renters. Switzerland's Jewish tourism is no different. And despite the large families that have grown up working in each hotel, none of the sons or daughters of the owners, or their grandchildren, has said they want to inherit the responsibility of a business on the wane. Leopold Bermann, or "Poldi," as his family calls him, grew up working in the Edelweiss in glitzy St. Moritz, where fur coats are de rigueur for women who window shop at stores like Gucci and Armani. As a child, his family hid here during World War II, and after the war ended, his father catered to Jewish American soldiers on leave from Germany. Built in 1883, the Edelweiss may be the oldest Jewish hotel in the world; in St. Moritz, it's the oldest family hotel. Leopold, 73, is the third Bermann to run the Edelweiss, having taken over for his father in 1953, at age 22. His wife, Rita, who grew up in Gateshead, England, has worked alongside him since they married in 1960. "I never thought I'd marry into a German-speaking country," confessed Rita Bermann, 69, who has since learned the language and enough Italian to speak with the kitchen staff. The Edelweiss has been and continues to be the center of Jewish life in St. Moritz. It contains the only synagogue, mikve and kosher restaurant in the area, so religious tourists who stay in this resort town inevitably pay a visit to the hotel to take a dip or enjoy a nosh. Despite its popularity with religiously observant tourists, both young and old, modern is not an adjective one would use to describe the Edelweiss. The last refit to the 122-year-old hotel was to its dining room in 1972. Aside from some 1980s-era furniture in a common room, the Edelweiss is stuck in the 1970s, but not in a way that is kitsch or cool. "It's a lot of money to build," Rita explained, highlighting the tremendous cost of shipping materials to this remote locale. Even though the Edelweiss is an expansive facility, the rooms convey the feeling that you're spending the night at your bubbe's house. Everything is clean, you'll get more than enough to eat and if you're going to stay out late they'll even give you a key to let yourself in. But the multicolored, patterned bath sheets that hang in the aging bathrooms appear to be more than 20 years old; the rooms are sparsely decorated and cramped; and it strikes one as odd that the phones actually have a keypad instead of a rotary dial. If Rita is the hotel's effusive bubbe, then Leopold Bermann is its temperamental zaide. His idiosyncrasies are renowned among regular guests, and it's something Leopold himself wears with particular pride. He's been known to lock away siddurim if people don't conform closely to the way he prefers to daven. "You don't want to get on the wrong side of him," said Rose Lefkowitz, a 55-year-old New York resident who says Switzerland is among her favorite destinations. But Ann Manning, visiting with her two daughters from Ra'anana, Israel, said she found the Bermanns "very obliging and very accommodating." Guests count the hotel's kitchen among its redeeming qualities, and head chef Renato has overseen preparation of gourmet-style kosher cuisine at the Edelweiss since 1977. Harry Schimmel, a 70-something solicitor from Golders Green, London, has been visiting the hotel for the last 50 years. He considers the Engadin one of the most beautiful areas of Switzerland, and tends to come during the winter for cross-county skiing. "If you're a kosher eater, you're somewhat limited in the places you can go," he said. IN ST. MORITZ, the kosher tradition extends beyond the Edelweiss more precisely, about 20 meters north. Each evening, as he has done for the last five decades, Leopold Bermann enters B ckerei-Conditorei, a kosher-certified bakery, to turn on the ovens, ensuring that the bread baked there will be kosher. "I'm carrying on a tradition," said owner Peter Allensbach, who continues the kosher certification started by his father. "We make [bread] for the hotel and we have many [Jewish] customers come in." The Edelweiss is traditionally opened for its longest stretch during the winter season, from mid-December until just after Pessah. Its summer season is limited to July and August. At the moment, Leopold Bermann says, the trend of religiously observant tourists renting flats in St. Moritz doesn't impact very much during his busiest time of year. "Some [stay in flats] in summer, but not in winter," he said. Chuni Kahan, a 43-year-old company director from Stamford Hill, London, came to the Edelweiss as a child and started coming back five years ago with his wife, Gitty. He said it's difficult to take a proper holiday as an Orthodox Jew, but he's adverse to the idea of renting a vacation flat. "You can take your meals with you, but it's not the same. Why should my wife have to cook when we're away?" he said. Given his age, Leopold Bermann knows someone will have to take over management of the Edelweiss. However, he has no clear successor. Only one of his five children, Shoshana, still lives in Switzerland, and while his son, Josef, bought the hotel a few years ago, he leaves the management up to his parents. His son has expressed no interest in returning to Switzerland from Israel, so the Bermanns are pinning their hopes on the grandchildren. Their 20-year-old granddaughter from Jerusalem, Rachel Bitton, spent her first season working at the hotel last winter. She's looking forward to starting a family, but she's not sure if she wants to do it in Switzerland. "For now, I still want to live in Israel," she said. "I'm really connected to the hotel, and I feel like I need to be here, but I don't know." Rita Bermann, who left England to be with her husband, hopes Bitton will make a similar choice to carry on the family tradition. "She's the best to take over," she said. Edelweiss guest Kahan said that St. Moritz offers a lot for tourists to do. He enjoys bumping into people that he's met in years past. A HALF-DAY rail trip shared by the Glacier Express and Rh tischen Bahn takes travelers through Graub nden's glacial valleys. Along the way, colorful Romansch-style homes line the snow-covered hills. Arosa is the polar opposite of St. Moritz. One main street is the focus of all activity in this sleepy hamlet. "St. Moritz is high society. Here is a place where everyone is welcome," said Marcel Levin, owner of Arosa's Hotel Metropol. Levin, 52, was born and grew up in Arosa. He talks glowingly of non-Jewish friends carrying schoolbooks for him on Shabbat and putting up a succa in a half-meter of snow during Succot. Marcel Levin's father arrived in the area in 1927 as an 18-year-old tuberculosis patient seeking a cure, like many drawn to the solariums of Arosa at the time. As his health improved, he set up a kosher lunch counter for Jewish residents, and in 1949 he purchased the Metropol, where Marcel worked during his youth. Marcel Levin took over the hotel from his father in 1975, one year after he married his wife Lea, a former teacher from Israel. The rooms at the Metropol are substantial, but they lack creature comforts of cable or satellite television. An Internet connection is available in a common room, but not for individual laptops. The bathrooms have recently been updated, and work on the bedrooms could easily bring the facility into the 21st century. An imposing man, Levin wears a stern, dour expression as he walks the halls of his hotel. He readily complains about the costs associated with his operations and is critical of the high tariffs imposed on imported goods, like the kosher ingredients used in the kitchen. However, the Metropol's owner becomes animated as he enters the hotel's dinning room, sitting down at each table, pouring wine and carrying on conversations throughout the evening. Lea says her husband is best working with the guests, "but I'm in the back. I like to work with the staff," she said. Like in St. Moritz, Jewish tourism is changing in Arosa, Marcel Levin said, and more people are starting to rent flats, turning to his hotel only for religious services, the mikve and meals. "We're a bit scared," he said. And like the Edelweiss, so far none of the six Levin children has expressed interest in taking over the hotel. Levin seems resigned to letting fate take its course. "Maybe one will take it over," he said, shrugging his shoulders. In the meantime, the guests who stay here say they are loyal to the Metropol, and the hotel recently counted among its guests Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, and his family. "We find it the most relaxing," said Esther Adler, a 29-year-old hairdresser from Manchester, on a five-day holiday with her 33-year-old husband, Isaak. "We've been to St. Moritz, but we're going to stay here." Dr. Teres Katzenstein, 46, an infectious disease specialist from Copenhagen, has counted Switzerland as a travel destination for 30 years. She stayed at the Edelweiss when she was 16, but is now a regular guest at the Metropol. Dr. Katzenstein said her family owned a kosher hotel in Denmark, but when her father passed away recently, they decided to sell it. Just like the younger generation of the Bermann and Levin clans, the Katzensteins appreciated what a family-run kosher hotel represents, but like the children of the two Swiss hotel owners, didn't want to change their careers mid-life to take on the inheritance. "The family Levin is a particular asset," said her husband, Eli Katzenstein, a 50-year-old leather goods manufacturer. "It's not just a hotel, it's their hotel." Both hotels are seasonal, open from July until the end of August during the summer, and from December until the end of Pessah during the winter. The writer's travel expenses were paid for by Switzerland Tourism.

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