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.
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."
When he returned to the States, Bernstein briefly considered rabbinical school. Instead, he returned to a place he credits with having a huge impact on his personal growth: the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, known as BOSS. As Bernstein describes it and as its name suggests, BOSS is about learning to do more with less in the natural world. Without tents or stoves, backpacks or sleeping bags, matches or flashlights, the experience becomes a catalyst for self-reliance and self-discovery. Bernstein, who had taken the course in 1988 when he was a senior in high school, returned during his summers off from college, first as a student, then as an apprentice and finally as an instructor. This time, he was interested in making the outdoors, and BOSS, his career.
He wrote a business plan and asked BOSS owner David Westcott to hire him as the school's marketing director, a position he would hold from 1994 to 1996. In 1997, Bernstein, confident that BOSS had the potential to grow internationally, took over as president and chief executive officer. "BOSS is about turning the clock back to a pre-industrial world where native cultures lived in harmony with the Earth," he says of the company's underlying philosophy. "If you look back far enough in our collective past, each of us was breaking rocks to make fire. We've just forgotten some of those skills. BOSS is a reawakening of that skill set and the soul that is associated with that lifestyle. It's about unplugging from the stresses that are ever pervasive in today's society."
Bernstein practices disconnection from the modern world to maintain balance. While he keeps a residence in Manhattan, he also has a yurt in a town of less than 200 people in Utah. Bernstein sees power in a paradox that allows him to have a foot in two very different worlds and still maintain a balance between the two. "If I just had one life, or one style of life, I think I would be like a tree with just leaves and no roots," he muses. "Trees need leaves and roots to balance the two. The real question is, are my roots in New York or are my roots in Utah? That one I haven't figured out yet."
But Bernstein is clearly comfortable crossing between both places. "Choosing one lifestyle and committing to it makes more sense than living in both worlds," he admits. "But for me, I appreciate the simplicity and beauty of nature, and yet I still am comfortable with modernity and technology.
"There's more to our modern world than meets the eye," he adds, "and I've always been drawn to the deeper levels. There's nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to a life of creature comforts and conveniences. Technology does have things to offer us. But if you can get into the deeper meaning of life, then you'll find the world is a much richer place.
As much as Bernstein appreciates the quest for knowledge, he understands that passing that knowledge on to others is equally important. So, when The History Channel approached him in 2004 about a new series it was developing, Bernstein saw a tremendous opportunity. Titled "Digging for the Truth," the show's concept revolved around historical events that were misunderstood and sometimes controversial in nature. It was about taking stories that were somewhat familiar and exposing them through extreme exploration, anthropology and archaeology.
At the time that Bernstein and The History Channel crossed paths, a pilot episode for the series had already been shot with another host. After seeing the skills and talents that Bernstein offered, however, the producers were determined to somehow work him into the program. In the end, it was decided that Bernstein would serve as host and the show would be customized around his physical and intellectual strengths.
Over the next three years Bernstein filmed 38 episodes for The History Channel. He explored everything from the pyramids of Egypt and the Lost Tribes of Israel to Stonehenge and the bloodlines written about in The Da Vinci Code. He considered the mystery of the Nazca lines in Peru, the giant stone statues on Easter Island, the lost cities of the Amazon and the Holy Grail. The episodes often featured Bernstein scuba diving or rappelling a mountain face, riding horseback or paragliding. "We did whatever it took to bring a physical component to perhaps what could be a dry topic," he says, "and it helped the show. It made me come alive and it made the topics come alive for a lot of people."
The concept worked. After "Digging for the Truth" premiered in January 2005, it rose to become The History Channel's highest-rated series ever, and its Season Three premiere in January 2007 attracted 2.1 million viewers, another record for the cable channel.
In February, Bernstein announced that he was leaving The History Channel to work on a new series for the Discovery Channel, "Josh Bernstein's Expeditions." While the show is similar in concept to "Digging for the Truth," Bernstein says it is more ambitious in that the goal of each episode is for viewers to learn something completely new and truly groundbreaking. "We didn't want it to be a regurgitation of history books," he says. "Nor did we want it to be limited to just history, archaeology or science. The topics are much broader and have a slight environmental streak. There will be paragliding and scuba diving, but there will also be the additional component of actually trying to break news."
Hosting "Digging for the Truth" taught Bernstein that the success of his new series will depend on his own preparation, dedication and passion. And while the likes of Mead, Roosevelt and Eastwood continue to influence him, Bernstein understands that the secret to success lies within. "I focus on my own life," he says, "my own objectives and doing what I think is right and what's best. I'm inspired by other people's lives, but I'm not necessarily motivated by them."
So what is it, then, that motivates Josh Bernstein? "The desire to create quality," he says. "Whether it's on the trail with BOSS or on the television with Discovery. I am tremendously fortunate to do what I do. To be able to go to these places and get fully immersed in these cultures, to meet the experts and become part of a period of research and inquiry, of learning and physical understanding, and doing it over and over again, is like winning the lottery. I'm motivated to be the best that I can be more than anything else.
"I'm not doing this for fame and fortune," he adds. "I'm doing this because I love learning and throwing myself 100 percent into the expeditions. I'm doing this because sharing the experiences with millions of people around the world gives me a greater sense of empowerment."
Bernstein remembers the first cigar he smoked with a smile. He was on a date with a beautiful woman named Nanette. Bernstein was impressed by her insistence on going to Morton's for steak, but was nearly stunned when she suggested they smoke cigars after dinner. Bernstein can't say what cigar he smoked, or even if he enjoyed it, but what he does remember is that he fell in love with the sensuality of the cigar-smoking experience. Eight years later, Bernstein fell in love with the cigars themselves.
Bernstein and his "Digging for the Truth" crew were in Patagonia exploring the myths of giants in South America. It was the middle of Season Two and Bernstein, who had been traveling around the world constantly, was feeling beaten up. He felt as if he was running a marathon and had just gotten past the halfway mark. There was a long way to go and it was only going to get harder. It was then that Bernstein's soundman, Rob Peterson, suggested they go get some Cuban cigars to relax with. They purchased a variety of brands, including Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Punch, and from there on out, at the end of each day's shoot, they would smoke cigars and play pool in the hotel's cigar room.
After Patagonia, on the last night of filming an episode, Bernstein would buy Cuban cigars and they would wrap with a cigar party. "The cigars were a thank-you to the crew and truly a cathartic release," says Bernstein. "It was a way for me to send my thanks up with the smoke into the universe after a grueling two weeks on the expedition."
These days, Bernstein has explored many brands and tried a lot of different cigars. But because he has the luxury of frequent international travel, he mostly smokes Cubans, though he is also a fan of Fuente Fuente OpusX. "I like strength," he says. "My beer is Guinness, my Scotch is Lagavulin and my cigar is Cohiba. I like the flavor, the quality and the allure of that brand. My favorite is the Siglo VI, but if I only have time to smoke a Siglo IV, so be it.
"Cigars have been tremendously helpful," he adds. "I'm not usually one for vices, though I think everybody should have one. Mine is I love a good cigar."
Being that Bernstein is a self-described fitness freak, he understands that the health warnings about smoking are real and that moderation is important, to a point. He also understands there is more than just one's physical health. "There also has to be a sense of spiritual health," he says, "and for me, having that release, that celebration, that cathartic thank-you to the universe, that giving of thanks and praise through cigars and smoke, is invaluable. It far outweighs any of the risks."
Photograph by Darryl Estrine
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