September 26, 2007

Cornell Connection: Josh Bernstein '93

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The History Channel isn’t really known for its sex appeal. Really most people think of it as the Hitler Channel, not the Hot-story Channel. But when the Sun went down to TriBeCa Film Festival last spring, we found out that there is one man that brings the ladies out in droves to learn about ancient history — if you know what I mean — and his name is Josh Bernstein ‘93. Josh took some time from his (unbelievably) busy schedule to answer some questions about Cornell and yurts for the Sun.
The Sun: Just so we can get a sense of what your life is like in your line of work, where are you right now and what is on your schedule for this week?
Josh Bernstein: Right now I’m in eastern Idaho, camping for a few days along Henry’s Fork of the Snake River near Rexburg. I’m attending a special gathering of primitive technology experts and enthusiasts called the Rabbitstick Rendezvous. It’s the 20th Anniversary of the event and BOSS (my survival school) is here to acknowledge the occasion with about 350 other people. Later in the week, I’ll be in New York, working on research for my new series. Then it?s off to Mauritius for 16 days of filming for Discovery.
Sun: Let’s backtrack a bit to your Cornell days, with the most expansive question possible: What was it like at Cornell for you?
J.B.: Cornell was amazing for me. My brothers went to Johns Hopkins and Brown at the same time, and when we graduated we all compared our notes on college. While they both enjoyed their experiences, we agreed that mine was the most fun. I was pretty quiet in high school, but at Cornell I found the freedom to explore and embrace the college experience fully. It was an exhilarating four years for me and if I could, I’d do it all over again the same way.
Sun: Did you always have the same sense of adventure here as you do now? What was the craziest thing you ever did at Cornell? And most importantly, did you ever find the secret tunnels that supposedly exist so students don’t have to trudge through the tundra in February?
J.B: Hmm. No, I never found the secret tunnels, perhaps I should come back and search more thoroughly with GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar). Nor did I ever challenge a girl to kiss me on the suspension bridge, or try to catch the statues on the Arts Quad shaking hand,. all unexplored myths. But I did always enjoy learning, exploring and educating, and that was a big part of my time at Cornell. Not sure I did anything “crazy” per se, although there were a few nights during pledging that I, of course, can’t tell you anything about.
Sun: I hear you double majored in Psych and Anthropology AND had a minor in Native American and Near Eastern Studies. Were these two distinct minors? Were you a double major and a double minor? Were you trying to make everyone at Cornell look bad?
J.B: [Laughs] No, it wasn’t really that formally planned. I started with Anthro as my major. But then I became friends with Dr. James Maas and we realized that Psych and Anthro were pretty similar. So some of my Anthro classes could count towards a Psych major and vice-versa. I don’t think my minors in Native American Studies and Near Eastern Studies were ever officially declared; they just happened to be what I filled my schedule with after Psych and Anthro. But really I just studied what interested me.
Sun: What fascinated you about the ancient things that you wound up working around on your show?
J.B: What didn’t fascinate me about the ancient things is perhaps an easier question to answer. After all, most of what I studied or was exposed to on Digging for the Truth came from fairly recent history, within the last 7,000 years or so. Most of us tend to think of people as “primitive” back then, but they had the same intellectual and emotional capacities as we do today and I’ve always been fascinated by their stories and struggles, their arts and ambitions. These “ancient” people would be completely lost in our high-tech world today, and yet so much of their humanity can be seen in the lives they lived and the worlds they created. I’m amazed how often history repeats itself.
Sun: Did you study archaeology at all at Cornell?
J.B: I did. It was required as part of my anthropology major. Although I recall being far more interested at the time in the people and cultures of the past than in their bones and physical remains. Today, however, I enjoy both equally.
Sun: Who were the professors here that guided you in any way to where you are now, and how did they do that?
J.B: Dr. Jim Maas (my Psych advisor) and John Henderson (my Anthro advisor) were the most influential in terms of the classes I took and how I planned to graduate. Both of them were terrific resources for me. I also loved Mohawk Chief Ron LaFrance, former director of the American Indian Studies program who has since passed away. He was a terrific influence on me during my freshman and sophomore years, as he told me to broaden my studies beyond just Native American interests. And Gary Rendsburg in the Near Eastern Studies department was the one who gave me some invaluable advice on what to do after Cornell. I told him I wanted to study Judaica more deeply, but without tests, term papers, or grading. I still remember what he said, “There’s only one place for you, then. The Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.” And so I went there, studying at Pardes from 1993-1994.
Looking back at their guidance now, I’m amazed at how much each of my advisors allowed me to study what I was passionate about, and how much they encouraged me to indulge my curiosities. I think that’s rare.
Sun: What kind of stuff did you do at Cornell outside of the classroom?
J.B: That’s easy: Greek life. In fact, I should add Randy Stevens to that last list. He was Associate Dean of Students when I was at Cornell and I worked with Randy more than any professor or advisor. I found that the Greek system at Cornell was a great way for me to learn leadership and management skills, as well as a fun way to meet people at a pretty large school. So I got involved in my fraternity (Pi Kappa Alpha) and eventually the Greek system, becoming president of my chapter, executive vice president of the IFC, and president of the Order of Omega honor society.
Randy and I spent a lot of time in his office talking about leadership, influence, and how we could leverage the school’s 43 fraternities into a positive force for student growth.
Sun: What is your fondest memory of Cornell?
J.B: Honestly, there are too many. I really loved it there, from my freshman year in the U-halls on West Campus to my Senior year living in Collegetown. Each year had its own flavor, but I really can’t pick a favorite. Although I think my most unusual memory is building the World’s Largest Lasagna on the Arts Quad in 1992. It was for a promotion for a pasta company and it involved the Greek system, which is where I came in. I basically forced all the fraternities to get up really early and help build an 80 foot by 10 foot lasagna in custom-made pans. Unfortunately, the damp weather — surprise — required that we cook it for an extra hour. During that time, the lasagna lost a lost a lot of water-weight from the cheese and it didn’t win the world record. Missed it by 50 pounds or something really trivial like that. But we did get “America’s Largest Lasagna!” And lots of food to eat.
Sun: Is there anything that you’ve done on either of your shows or in any of your other ventures that was influenced by Cornell at all in any way? Was there any moment that you can remember when you were stuck under a pyramid or something like that and you had a flash of something James B. Maas said to you once that turned out to be the key to saving your life or finding the Holy Grail?
J.B: [Laughs] What, like Jim’s voice in my head saying “Use the Force, Josh” or something like that? No, sorry. But I do think that my time at Cornell gave me a chance to explore my strengths and weakness and embrace who I am. And that sense of self and the confidence it creates has without a doubt influenced who I am today and how I relate to the challenges I face in life, in pyramids or on pavement.
Sun: How did you go from Cornell grad to host of your own TV show? I know that you were a consultant on some movies, first, so how did you get there? What’s the in between story from graduation day to where you are?
J.B: I’m not trying to make a sale, but if you?re really interested, read chapter 1 of my book Digging for the Truth that came out last year. It explains the story in detail. But the short version is that my survival school BOSS was doing a lot of consulting for the media between 1998 and 2001. As marketing director and then CEO for the school, I was often the one on camera, teaching people survival skills. And yes, that included Charlie’s Angels, with Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu and all the consulting for the survival scenes on the island in Castaway with Tom Hanks. Eventually, a tape of me teaching these skills got to The History Channel and we started talking about my hosting a new series for them. Long story short, that series became Digging for the Truth. Of course, it was a total fluke and I never really thought it would become a hit show, much less send me around the world for three seasons.
Now, however, I’m totally embracing the TV thing and am really excited about what I’m creating with Discovery Channel. And I count my blessings every day.
Sun: You’ve been described as a survival expert. Was this a byproduct of your other ambitions or a separate endeavor? How does one learn to be an expert at survival?
To be honest, I’ve always hesitated to use the term “survival expert” as I know many people who know a lot more about survival than I do. But for the sake of presenting my credentials to viewers, it was easier for us to go with “survival expert” than, say, “curious soul who likes to explore and learn, even if it means in very uncomfortable places.” I do, of course, enjoy wilderness survival and the curriculum we teach at BOSS. There’s beauty in the simplicity of the skills of primitive cultures. But I think it’s more accurate to say I?m expert at synthesizing complicated information and then placing it in a broader context. I think I’m good at understanding the big picture and helping others learn experientially, whether the topic is survival, archaeology, or issues of global concern. And I’m passionate about learning. which helps take someone along for the ride.
As for becoming an expert, at anything, there?s no trick. It just takes perseverance and dedication. Immerse yourself in all forms of learning, books, television, travel, hands-on experience, and regardless of topic, you can become an expert in a few years.
Sun: What advice would you give to current Cornellians as to how best to survive Ithaca and Cornell?
J.B: Dress warm?? [Laughs] Actually, it’s hard for me to say what can work on campus today, as I haven’t been a student there in almost 15 years. But I know that when I’m having a hard time these days, whether it’s on a tough shoot or in a challenging environment, I always find a way to just get through the next hour. Then the next hour. And then the next. Eventually, the day ends and I can re-group for another day. And then another. It’s all about mental baby steps towards completing the task at hand. It also helps knowing that no matter how tough things get for me on a shoot, I can always tell myself I’ve been through worse.
Sun: Having traveled all over the world, undoubtedly into some of the harshest climates, how high does Ithaca rank in Worst Weather of the world?
J.B: I was just in the Arctic, where it was 20 below most of the time, and people thought that was warm! And I’ve been in white-outs in the Alps that were not too pleasant. But even with all my travel, I can still recall my walks from the Ag Quad to West Campus on cold winter nights. They were BRUTAL! I think it?s the combination of wind, humidity and cold that makes Ithaca weather so harsh. Trust me, those four years prepared me very well for many winter hardships.
Sun: If you were giving advice to Cornellians who have a profound feeling of wanderlust, what?s one of the cooler places you?ve been that you’d suggest we try to go to if we can?
J.B: I’ll give you two: Petra, Jordan, and Machu Picchu, Peru. Both are spectacular examples of archaeological beauty, master stonemasonry, and cultural richness. Go.
Sun: I read that you have both an apartment in New York City, and a yurt in Utah. What are the advantages to living in a yurt?
J.B: Yurts are nomadic shelters from Mongolia. As such, they go up quickly and easily, often in a day. And because they?re often considered temporary shelters according to building codes, you can usually put one on your property without worrying too much about permits. I love my yurt. Living in a round structure feels much more harmonious than square spaces, and nothing beats falling asleep with a view of the stars and moon through the skylight above.
Sun: Do you get recognized a lot? Does your twin brother ever get mistaken for you in public? Do you ever get mistaken for him?
J.B: I get stopped maybe once or twice a day. It depends on where I am: in New York City, people tend to ignore each other in the street, but in airports or abroad, I’m always running into fans who usually just want to thank me for taking them somewhere fun and teaching them something. It’s great to know people appreciate the hard work making a good show requires.
No, my twin brother and I don?t get confused much these days. We don’t look that much alike, especially with my beard and longer hair.
Sun: There?s a perception of the History Channel that whenever you turn it on, you hear about World War II. When you were working for them, did you find that they ever wanted you to dig into the truth about Hitler?
J.B: No, that was never discussed. Most of the topics we explored on Digging had to be over 500 years old, basically, that was our cutoff. But Hitler did come up in the episode on The Holy Grail, where I explored Wewelsburg Castle and Heinrich Himmler?s obsession with finding the Grail. It was definitely somber.
Sun: Were you always into the extreme sport element of Digging for the Truth or is that something that came along from someone else?s idea? What was the coolest thing you got to do on Digging for the Truth extreme-sports wise? What haven’t you done for your shows that you want to do?
J.B: No, it wasn’t my idea to make the show that extreme. Originally, we were just looking for ways to spice up the journey and make the shows more enjoyable. So during the first season, I would use SCUBA on one show and power-paraglide on the next. But by season two, the show was a hit and the producers became competitive, trying to make each show more adventurous than the last. As a result, there were a few days where I nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Thankfully, I was able to rein them in before it got too dangerous. But a lot of the physical stuff was, and still is, fun for me. I really enjoy getting my hands dirty, so to speak. The worst activity was playing Ulama on the episode at Teotihuacan, City of the Gods, in Mexico. I had to hit an 8-pound ball of solid rubber with my hip, volley-ball style, and it was pain-ful. Ugh. The bruise I got from that day lasted weeks, and I later learned that ancient ulama players sometimes died from internal bleeding.
As for new activities, I haven?t yet done any skydiving for an episode, although we did talk about it once. The problem was the camera man ? there was no way he could get the shot easily. Also, deep-sea SCUBA would be fun for me. We?ll see where things go — my new series is taking everything to the next level, so I guess that includes the adventurous activities.
Josh’s book, Digging for the Truth: One Man’s Epic Adventure Exploring the World’s Greatest Archeological Mysteries, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and many other book retailers. His next projects for television will appear soon on the Discovery Channel, so stay tuned.