Yanki Jacobs

The choice between old and new melodies goes beyond notes and sounds

Synagogue Chabad Amsterdam South. Credit:
Synagogue Chabad Amsterdam South. Credit:

In the intricate world of Jewish law, the Halacha, two crucial principles are anchored: Minhag Hamakom and Minhag Avoteinu. These reflect, respectively, the local traditions and the customs of our ancestors. The former demands adaptation to the local environment, while the latter emphasizes the preservation of the heritage of parents and grandparents. These two pillars form a delicate balance for a stable Jewish life, especially in a world where diaspora and changes are pervasive.

As the Jewish people wander through the diaspora, they must constantly contemplate their relationship with local (and local-Jewish) communities. Preserving tradition is essential, but complete isolation is unsustainable. These principles, as the constitutions of contemporary Jewish life, mirror the challenges of 2023. For many, including myself, this tension is palpable. As a descendant of Russian-Chassidic ancestors and also a tenth-generation Dutch Jew, I face a dilemma. For example, which melodies do I choose for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah? The tender East European ‘Nigun‘ or the opera-like Amsterdam melody?

It might seem trivial, but especially for those who sporadically visit a synagogue, familiarity with the melodies is of inestimable value. The right composition can evoke a deeper connection – memories of moments with parents and grandparents. Yet, if the melody is even slightly different, that emotional connection is lost. So, when I stand before the synagogue and make the choice between nostalgia and innovation, I know that my responsibility as a rabbi extends to preserving those precious melodies and minhagim – customs.

In a world where change is constant, these melodic remnants offer a sense of continuity. They are like musical anchors, allowing people to feel connected to their history, their identity, and their faith. The choice between old and new melodies goes beyond notes and sounds; it touches the essence of who we are as a community and how we cherish our legacy. They constitute the heritage of Jewish Netherlands, a link in the unbroken chain of tradition.

We must therefore keep the local melodies and minhagim alive, not only out of respect for our previous generations but also to ensure that the tunes of our past resonate with the hearts of those who will follow us. In the harmonious fusion of minhag hamakom and minhag avoteinu, we find the key to a resilient Jewish identity in a world full of change.

This Column is a translation of a previously published column in Dutch for the Netherlands Jewish Weekly NIW.

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About the Author
Yanki Jacobs is an Amsterdam-based rabbi and the 11th generation of Dutch Jews. He offers spiritual guidance to individuals in the Netherlands University Campuses and 'Zuidas,' the financial district of Amsterdam South. In addition to his rabbinical duties, he conducts research and publishes works exploring a range of topics such as ethics, education, leadership, identity, and communal values. Alongside his wife, Esty, he leads the Dutch chapter of Chabad on Campus and Chabad of Amsterdam South.
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