While Mountain Jews venerated the Yomim Tovim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they felt a peculiar and passionate zeal toward Pesach. “Women would start to clean three months before Pesach! They would whitewash all the walls and clean carpets in the river,” recalls Mrs. Gila Mordechai, who grew up in Kuba. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to pass by an elderly Gorsky woman washing and beating thick Azerbaijani carpets against the benches of Ocean Parkway (particularly by Ditmas Avenue and Cortelyou Road) to fully release all dirt and dust. The sight of speeding cars on Ocean Parkway contrasts bizarrely and endearingly with Gorsky women who, in spite of not being fully Orthodox, scrub carpets with incomparable zest. “God forbid if an iota of chometz enters through a Gorsky person’s doorway,” states Mr. David Mordechai, a native of Azerbaijan. “In fact, the ultimate curse among Gorsky Jews was to say to another, ‘May there be chometz in your house on Pesach!’” The cursed one would shake and shudder at that evil proclamation.
In Azerbaijan, Gorsky Jews would also grow their own wheat to make matzah, and utter in Juhuri, “This we do for the sake of matzah” as they rolled out the dough. After months of arduous work, families finally sat down to enjoy eshkene, a Gorsky meat soup with whisked eggs and potatoes, traditionally cooked for Pesach. On the last day of the holiday, trips were made to the countryside. These trips were called Gov’il Govlei (translated as “redemption”) and they symbolized the Exodus. Gov’il Govlei was also an opportunity for courtship and marriage. “Girls wore traditional clothes, formed groups with other girls, and walked along without the supervision of their brothers. Young men would look around and see who they wanted to marry!” says Mrs. Mordechai.
Aside from Gov’li Govlei, arranged marriages were customary. Like many Jews living in Muslim countries, Mountain Jews included a bride price in their matrimonial customs. Gorsky men paid their future father-in-law with cows, wheat, hens, and silk. Many Gorsky courting customs are still practiced today. For example, like Chassidim, some Gorsky parents will still accompany their son to the house of the potential bride’s parents and talk before an actual date has even taken place. And Gorsky weddings are still celebrated with grand traditions. Relatives and friends grow excited about tebeq, a joyous ceremony at which trays of candy, clothing, and jewelry are presented to the bride. At the end of a wedding, family members gather in a circle, and sing Benigoru, a very slow and melancholic song in where all the names of the couple’s relatives (both living and deceased) are recited. The song starts and ends with a reference to Israel and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
Moreover, there are a few post-wedding traditions that 21st century Gorskys won’t relinquish. “The first time a bride enters her in-laws’ house after the wedding, she dips her hand in a plate of honey, places that hand on a mezuzah, and then allows her mother-in-law to lick the remaining honey off her hand,” says Mrs. Mordechai. As a mother-in-law, Mrs. Mordechai has practiced this custom a few times. “The tradition serves to symbolize a harmonious relationship between the bride and her mother-in-law,” she explains. And because Gorsky parents used to live with their married sons, there was little room for bad mother-in-law jokes and clichés in this culture.
In fact, until the mid-20th century the entire extended family would share a household – grandparents, in-laws, aunts, uncles and children would always be together. The men would leave the house to work as farmers, artisans, and merchants. They were also known for being strong military warriors. Some historians suggest that Mountain Jews trace this tradition back to when Persian-Jewish soldiers were required to stay off invasion from the Huns and other nomadic foes. This characteristic influenced their dress as well. “Gorsky men hung daggers and swords from their belts. They would wear woolen coats and fur hats as well,” recalls Mr. David Mordechai. “Meanwhile, women would dress in silk and colored robes – known as gobo – and wear several layers of scarves over their head.”