By: Lauren Sloan
Debbie Dix was reluctant for her son to serve in the Peace Corps, especially given all of the beheadings and chaos in the region at the time. She wanted her son to come back with his head—a reasonable request from any mother, let alone a Jewish one. But in 2005 her tall, dark-eyed son was off to Uzbekistan, and so she supported him nonetheless. When he came home from his service in 2007, he not only returned with his head, but he also brought back the experience of a lifetime.
Uzbekistan was different than anything Josh Dix had ever experienced before.
“Imagine a thousand Arabian nights with Soviet infrastructure everywhere,” Josh explained. “That’s basically Uzbekistan.”
Culture shock would be an understatement. Uzbekistan was Josh’s first trip to a Muslim country; a country where he was advised to keep his faith a secret from some of his own students; a place where he wasn’t Jewish, he was strictly American. But there was a problem: he was Jewish. Actually, he was very Jewish.
Growing up in the suburbs of East Cobb, Georgia, Dix was raised religious, where he attended synagogue regularly and went to Hebrew school. Judaism was, and still is, an integral part of his life.
Though the culture in Uzbekistan was quite different than what Josh grew up with, he managed to find some familiarity within the country.
“If you could believe it, there was a Hillel in Uzbekistan,” he admitted with a smile. “There’s a pretty big Jewish community left in Uzbekistan.”
Though 88% of the country’s population is Muslim, over 4,000 Jews still call Uzbekistan their home. These surprising numbers are remnants of communist times, says Rabbi Michoel Refson, co-director of Chabad at the University of Georgia, when thousands of Jews fled the former USSR in order to keep their religion safe.
Despite the Jews’ presence in the country, however, they were still a minority, and found themselves to be slightly misunderstood. For example, while the Christian volunteers were permitted time off for holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the local Peace Corps preferred that Josh worked on important holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. He refused; he insisted on observing his holy days, regardless of other’s opinions.
“It’s not that they weren’t accepting,” Dix admits. “It’s just that they didn’t understand it.”
Moldova wasn’t much different. When civil unrest forced Josh out of Uzbekistan just six months after he started his service, he was transferred to Moldova. He quickly realized this country carried misconceptions about his faith as well.
Moldova was a country affected by the pogroms, Dix recalled; there are still some misconceptions and anti-Semitism left in the country.
Josh experienced these misjudgments firsthand while teaching at a local University in Moldova, Comrat State University. To demonstrate the liberties that come with freedom of speech, Josh decided to talk about the Muhammad cartoons; it was a stupid idea, even he admits it. The students started screaming and shouting in Turkish and Josh completely lost control of the class.
“Basically this guy was in the process of convincing everybody that I was a Jewish spy sent from Israel to convert them and to tear them away from Islam,” Josh said with surprise.
His students never came to class again—until the day of the final. They asked Josh why he hated them and why he said those awful things about Muhammad. Josh sat down. The questions kept coming like cannons. Is it true you eat the flesh of babies? Do you know every Jew in the world? Is it true you own Nokia? Do you really have horns?
Textbooks and television fed them these fallacies, but Josh spoke the truth. For three hours he answered question after question, dispelled myth after myth until they could ask no more. They realized they had misjudged him.
That following year, these students became his strongest class. They attended every lecture and participated in every discussion; they loved him.
“Had I told Peace Corps about what had happened, they would have probably moved me to another site,” Josh said. “And that group of kids would not understand what freedom of speech actually is… and they would’ve carried those misconceptions about Jews their entire lives.”
But he didn’t tell Peace Corps. Thank goodness he didn’t tell the Peace Corps.