Joel M. Hoffman speaks in Dothan, Alabama

Why This Nice Jewish Yankee Keeps Coming Back to the Bible Belt

A biblical scholar finds plenty of reasons to keep heading South

I travel a lot. My lecture circuit has brought me to the six habitable continents, where I’ve presented in synagogues and churches, universities and libraries, living rooms and theaters.

In Leuven, Belgium, I taught Bible translators from around the world, and in Mexico City, Mexico, I helped Hebrew teachers from North and South America improve their craft. I’ve skied atop a snow-pack of 55 feet (yes, feet) in Alaska and photographed lions in South Africa.

Ovid was right when he wrote that a traveler “delights to wander in unknown lands … his eagerness making light of toil.”

But it is toil. Thomas Fuller was also right when he said that “never any weary traveler complained that he came too soon to his journey’s end.” Travel is exhausting, which is why hospitality on the road is so important.

And no one gets hospitality right like the South.

I’ve been a traveling presenter for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) for some time now, and the memories of my southern trips are fond and unforgettable. I remember a temple president graciously giving me a walking tour through his historic town despite a bitter cold snap. Another time, a Southern Baptist minister didn’t want me to take a taxi to the airport, even though he had to wake up at 5:30 AM to drive me himself. And the ISJL made sure I didn’t dine alone when aircraft maintenance stranded me for a night.

And of course the South is home to the Bible Belt.

Now, that “Bible Belt” gets a bad rap. People hear the phrase and think of narrow-minded Bible-pounding intolerant yokels. Those surely exist, but I haven’t met them. Just the opposite. My trips to the South have put me in front of Jews and Christians alike who are genuinely eager to learn what this New York Yankee has to teach.

Frequently those Jews and Christians are in the same room — a synagogue, or a church, or at the Rotary Club — learning together in common fellowship. These amicable gatherings are all the more remarkable in the context of 2,000 years of Jewish-Christian coexistence that has more often been marked by hatred and violence than by tolerance, respect, and joy.

It’s an important reminder these days. And it’s why I head frequently down South from New York, hopping on another (probably delayed) flight… because I know that the destination will make my journey worthwhile.

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman focuses on bringing the Bible to life and is known for his “fresh insights and interpretations about religious life in the 21st century.” A popular speaker, he presents to churches, synagogues, community groups, and university audiences around the world. His latest book is The Bible Doesn’t Say That. When not writing or teaching, he usually has a camera in his hand.

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