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The Two Worlds Of Josh Bernstein

The globe-trotter who hosted The History Channel's "Digging for the Truth" and now stars in a new series for the Discovery Channel is as comfortable in modern culture as he is among primitive societies. And he finds room to smoke in both.
Michael Marsh
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

As an anthropologist and explorer who's been to the world's most remote corners and come face-to-face with many of its indigenous peoples, Josh Bernstein knows a thing or two about mystic rituals and sacred ceremonies in ancient and traditional cultures. The former host of The History Channel series "Digging for the Truth" also understands and appreciates the role that tobacco can play in those rituals. "Tobacco is a tremendous ally," says Bernstein, who is now the host and executive producer of a series tentatively titled "Josh Bernstein's Expeditions," which debuts in February on the Discovery Channel. "And for someone who appreciates traditional cultures and who has always associated tobacco with Native Americans and with the higher spirits they are connected to, smoke, tobacco and the power of sending your prayers up on the wind is not something that is lost on me." He has smoked tobacco with a Bolivian shaman who was teaching him about Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, on the edge of the Andean Lake Titicaca and puffed on peace pipes with Native American Indians in the West. But for Bernstein, it is cigars that provide the most satisfaction. So when it comes to smoking cigars—from buying them and tending to them in his humidor, to selecting which cigar to smoke, lighting it and savoring it to the end, Bernstein appreciates the whole process as a spiritual ritual. "There's something supernaturally balanced about the physical and the ethereal," he says of smoking a cigar. "You're crossing both worlds."

The quest for knowledge has been a continuing pursuit for the 36-year-old Bernstein. Born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he was eager to learn from an early age and that fueled his imagination and desire for adventure and exploration. An avid reader, Bernstein spent countless hours in the American Museum of Natural History, drawn there by "the endless amounts of knowledge that are captured and contained within those walls."

Bernstein was captivated by the great outdoors too. As a youth, his typical summer included camping, archery and horseback riding in places such as New Hampshire and Antigua, and by the time he began attending Horace Mann School, an elite, conservative prep school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Bernstein was a self-described "crunchy" kid, interested in environmental issues and eating organic food.

He was also obsessed with Clint Eastwood and his recurring on-screen personae, such as the Man With No Name, a gunslinger with a say-less-do-more attitude. He also admired Eastwood's commitment to quality, whether it was in front of the camera or behind it. "He was the epitome of the tall, rugged, western guy," says Bernstein. "He didn't necessarily want to live in the modern world and he was OK with that. He also brought a refreshing reminder to be true to yourself before you lose something special."

High school wasn't without turbulence for Bernstein. Six weeks prior to his 15th birthday, his father died of a heart attack in his sleep. One year later, his three-year-old sister was killed in a car accident. "It was a very traumatic period," Bernstein remembers. "But after those events, I was very motivated to get the most out of my day, week, month, year. Suddenly, life seemed very precious."

After high school, Bernstein enrolled at Cornell University, where he completed two majors—anthropology and psychology—and two minors—Native American and Near Eastern studies. Between psychology, the study of one person, and anthropology, the study of a collective, Bernstein found a balance—a concept that was becoming a defining personal quality—in studying both. "It allowed me to go from very narrow to very wide in my focus," he says.

But it was anthropology that most attracted Bernstein. He immersed himself in the research of Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss, people who would become Bernstein's heroes of anthropology. Through anthropology, Bernstein also became interested in world explorers, especially Ernest Shackleton and Teddy Roosevelt. It's interesting that both men were able to cross comfortably between life in a major city and life on the frontier, as Bernstein does today.

Bernstein saw Cornell as a place where he could "stretch and grow. It was a chance for me not to feel limited by what people knew of me. I could become whatever I wanted to become." He was involved in various campus organizations and pledged to the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, eventually becoming its president. He was also entrepreneurial, procuring his own sound system to deejay parties.

Upon graduating in 1993, Bernstein was armed with the management, organizational and communication skills he had honed in college. He was prepared for the business world, but not quite ready to enter it.

Instead, Bernstein set off for Jerusalem to spend a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies reading and contemplating ancient, traditional and mystical Jewish texts. "I'm not expert now," he says, "but that year of intense study really gave me a sense of the depth of Judaism and my heritage. There are many paths to the top of the mountain and I think each person needs to know their path. That was my chance to walk it."

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