An Ex-Hasidic Skeptic Remembers Christopher Hitchens

Joshie and Christopher Hitchens

I recall back in my yeshiva days, the term godol, great one, was reserved for people like Reb Moshe Feinstein, a genius even among geniuses we were told, and also Reb Aryeh Kaplan, reputed to be an illuy and perhaps a lamed vuvnick, one of those secretive 36 people without whom the world would cease to exist. I recently came across a YouTube video of Reb Kaplan being interviewed and I was shocked. He was talking utter nonsense about the creation of the world; if any other religious cult’s member was espousing similar ideas every yeshiva guy would die laughing.

The kaballah crap Kaplan was asserting is objectively no less hilarious than any ancient myth that, if repeated today, would also have every yeshiva guy on the floor. I am aware that many brilliant people believed in many silly things. Isaac Newton died searching for a magic stone that turns things to gold, for example. But Newton at least demonstrated his genius despite his foolish ideas. I haven’t seen the same for these godolim. In fact every time I am told of this genius in Monsey or that illuy in Montreal, I always feel not only disappointed but shocked at how these people have charmed their ilk into buying into the genius routine.

Last night we lost a genuine godol. A legitimate great one. Whether you agree with him or not, only a fool would attempt to argue away the greatness that was Christopher Hitchens. No other Atheist debater, not Dawkins, not Dennett, not Harris and not even Sagan had the respect and admiration of his fans as well as his detractors. As I did back in yeshiva when Reb Moshe died, I feel a void, but this time around I’m not an uneducated, credulous yeshiva student who is going by what people tell him.

About a year ago I was told that Christopher Hitchens was speaking at the New York public library. I can listen to Hitchens speak all day, and often do. A simple click on a YouTube video of his will inevitably have me up ’til 5am saying to myself "OK, I’m clicking on just one more Hitchslap video and that’s it." So I went, early, to get a good seat.

I’m not exactly sure what happened but several moments before he was set to come on stage I got into something of a screaming match with someone in my party. Not wanting to (continue to) make a scene, we took it to the hallway. My shouts were quieted by a familiar voice saying, "Hey hey hey, relax big fella." I turned around and there he was, Hitch himself. My hero…and I don’t fling that word around casually. A whisky glass in one hand and a camera crew following him.

I looked at him and blurted out, "Ohmygod, I love you, I grew up a Hasidic Jew, I did a complete 180, I have dedicated my life to freeing others from the shackles of religion and you are my inspiration, please, I know you’re goin’ on stage, but I need a picture." He looked at me and said, "Take those fuckers down," and not only obliged but gave me a shot of whisky as well. I took a picture and honestly don’t recall a single word he said that evening, I was too giddy playing back in my head what had just transpired. It is a picture I shall always treasure, and it very well may be one of the last photos of Hitchens in that condition. The following morning he was hospitalized and the skeptical world was never the same. I feel comfortable saying that the world is a worse-off place than it was a day ago.

What do you think?

About The Author

Joshie Berger

Joshie Berger came into the national spotlight as the loud and proud ex-Hasidic Jew after winning season 2 of Food Network’s top rated reality show “Worst Cooks in America.” A member of the NYC Skeptics Association and an outspoken critic of Orthodoxy, Joshie combines passion with humor on many taboo topics. Look out for his podcast “” coming this winter.

36 Responses

  1. Shaya Getzel

    Amen brother.
    I too am a former Chossid, who was greatly influenced by Hitchens. I find it comical that many who disagreed with him feel the need to call him “arrogant” or “rude”. As someone who enjoys a good intellectual debate, I see nothing wrong with being brutally honest, and assertive with you’re point of view, as long as you can back them up – which Hitchens did brilliantly.
    He’s not in a better place, he’s not at peace now, and he’s certainly not looking down at us. He’s dead. It sucks, and he will be sorely missed, but that’s life. So in his memory have a scotch, smoke a cigarette, and read a book. Not a peace of fiction like the bible, but rather something that will open your mind. It’s what Chaim Hitchens Z’Tzal would have wanted.

  2. joshie

    isnt it odd that no one but frum people find frum geniuses to be geniuses…you think if einstein read through reb moshe’s shalos utshuvos that he would be flipped out by the genius contained within?:) i do love ur faux paus of ‘peace’ n ‘bible’ next to each other;) git shabbos

  3. joshie

    im now being trashed by failed messiah, who claims that i unfairly am bashing ‘world renowned’ physicist and yadda yadda yadda…the entire trashing of me proves my point…for me to prove that einstein was a world renowned anything i would have to do very little, link to a few unbiased sites indicating this, articles he wrote that astounded the world, his noble prize mention, etc etc…

    wikipedia mentions arye kaplan had a phd, thats the only non frum thing i found out about him…i have asked failed messiah to point to the obvious genius of this man that i have overlooked, i anxiously await it…otherwise, he is making my point for me, just regurgitating what we were taught at a young age, that he is an undisputed genius…

    lastly, i went back to watch the video of arye kaplan, after i saw others mentioning his eloquence, etc in the messiah thread…im sorry, i couldnt make it past 5 minutes…like a less intelligent, less charismatic deepak chopra, i stand by my words until shown im wrong…heres the link, judge for urself

  4. JennyB

    I love this, but why did you have to do that pose, Joshie? Why?

    Hitchens was a complicated man. I could have done without his misogyny and warmongering, but I respected him on so many other levels that I tended to overlook his shortcomings. He will be sorely missed.

  5. Jordan

    Rockon Joshie! Imagine if you stayed Hasidic the whole world would have passed you now by in the blink of an eye and for what now your out living in the greatest city hanging with some of the greatest and funniest minds if our time.

  6. joshie

    thank u jordan, the silver lining in the entire, very difficult process, of leaving a lifestyle is the appreciation i now have for the little things most take for granted…even now, just being able to respond and type on friday nite and not feel like im goin to hell for violating the sabbath is so rewarding…

    and jenny, i am sorry, what about my pose do u not like? i love life, i like being silly and i enjoy posing in various ways, im sorry it irks u so much…lighten up, life is way too short to get caught up in unnecessary restrictions;)

  7. JennyB

    Awwww…I was just joking around about the dude-bro-ness of it all. It didn’t irk me. It’s hard to convey jokes in writing. I’m glad you got to meet one of your heroes.

  8. Not Important

    Hitchens was a deeply flawed individual on so many levels. Compare that with R’ Moshe, who was moral to the core. But that is besides the point. He might have had an IQ, but you would not be able to tell that from his debates, and I have watched many of them. His forte was mockery, scorn, cynicism and similar. He would have not lasted five minutes in any good yeshiva, or for that matter in any philosophy department in any university in the world. Comparing his intellectual achievements with those of R’ Moshe, is a farce. R’ Moshe’s Igros Moshe are overpowering testaments to his genius. Christopher Hitchens’ books are a joke.

  9. joshie

    next time use the sarcasm font;) i do though would love for u to elaborate on this ‘misogyny’ of his u mention…ive heard it before but never quite got where it originated, he seemed a fierce defender of womens rights and advocate of their welfare…either way, enjoy the rest of ur weekend;)

  10. Yehuda

    Thank You for the Arye Kaplan Video, I Did not know it was available Wow to see him live! God Bless you!

  11. mark cham

    Joshie-While your idol is burning in hell, there is still time for you to repent…While I have to admit that Hitchens was entertaning to watch, it still behooves me that “Intellectuals” such as yourself, still believe that the world just happened to come into existence by some big bang..There is still hope for you Joshie!!

  12. Jeff

    @Mark Cham: “Joshie-While your idol is burning in hell, there is still time for you to repent…”

    So much for those who keep insisting Judaism doesn’t have a concept of eternal damnation.

    For the record, Mark – you’re an insignificant little piece of slime. Go fuck yourself.

  13. Jeff

    @Not Important: “R’ Moshe’s Igros Moshe are overpowering testaments to his genius.”

    Thereby validating Joshie’s earlier statement: “isnt it odd that no one but frum people find frum geniuses to be geniuses… “

  14. joshie

    mark, i am willing to entertain any evidence u have to the contrary, till then i shall follow the lead of the people who gave us cures for disease and spaceships while u follow the lead of primitive thinkers who dabble in matters that have zero consequence to modern society

  15. mark cham

    Joshie- Faith by definition doesn’t require evidence. Given the choice of believing that something came fron nothing or g-d, I choose the latter. There really is no other choice.

    Jeff-Thank you for your thoughful comments.Very mature

    Judaism believes in reward/punishment thus heaven/hell..Who told you anything to the contrary? If it was your idol Hitchens, then he is learning his lesson firsthand now!!

  16. Jeff

    “Judaism believes in reward/punishment thus heaven/hell..Who told you anything to the contrary? ”

    That isn’t what I said. Your reading comprehension is indicative of a typical yeshiva “education”.

    “If it was your idol Hitchens, then he is learning his lesson firsthand now!!”

    Which would give you a great deal of pleasure, no doubt.

    You’re garbage.

  17. Chana berger

    Hey joshi you are so full of garbage !
    Anyone who knows you knows that you are so full of hate it is the essence of your being!
    And on succos tricking your kids into eating treife?!
    You only have respect for the degenerates that you post on your Facebook page, and they are a testimony to man descending from apes.
    In light of the above I can understand your belief in evolution.
    Posted by: Yehuda Berger | December 18, 2011 at 12:56 PM

  18. mark cham

    Jeff, It is you who simply has no reading comprehension:
    @Mark Cham: “Joshie-While your idol is burning in hell, there is still time for you to repent…”
    So much for those who keep insisting Judaism doesn’t have a concept of eternal damnation.

    Who said anything about ETERNAL damnation?

    And for the record, who says I take any
    “pleasure” in Hitchens burning in hell? He chose to dedicate his life disparaging g-d, and now he has to live with the repercussions..

  19. joshie

    cant tell u how impressed i am that ur tryin so hard on so many threads to make things up and trash me, i must have really gotten under ur skin;) keep goin, after i fed em treif i fed one of em to a lion, loser

  20. mark cham

    Jeff, Vermin,Garbage,and insignificant little piece of slime to name a few . I guess namecalling is your most effective way of making a point. Well done sir…You make my “KIND” look so good!!!

    Your parents must be so proud!!! How’s that for the last word!!!

  21. joshie

    yeah, cause resigned, divorced people are just the worst types of people out there, the type which u need not discuss anything they say but merely make mention of that fact and pat urself on the back…wow, some hardy boy u are;)

  22. Steven

    Since when did attacking the author on a personal level become acceptable in the comments section of an article???

    What does the authors personal life have to do with the subject matter?

  23. Liba

    he was so smart but he was also a jerk to every1 he talked to
    i think u can be smart but still be a nice guy so something about him was obviosly stupid

  24. Aharon

    Unfortunately I think your emotional hateiness and resentment colors what could have been a thoughtful opinion piece: let me try and break it down: my godol is bigger then your godol and arguments over who is a genius whatever that means – that’s grade school level immaturity. If you did spend time in yeshiva and were a sincere learner at least a high school level you should be able to recognize some pretty seriously intelligent people (not tot mention sincere and moral) in the Talmudic world. Argue this point and you lose credibility with me. On the other hand hitchens iwas certainly entertaining and intelligent but I am not sure how much further it goes from there. But the point is who cares? Your point is that he used his gifts for something you believe in and added value to a world where there are objective ways of measuring value (science). Whereas you believe all the smart people (and the smarter they are to you the more tragic it is) in the orthodox tradition worked for thousands of years on work that only provided value (if at all you might argue) to a small group of people. How different would the world be if they applied their intelligence to science throughout the ages? We will never know.

  25. Varagi

    “But Newton at least demonstrated his genius despite his foolish ideas. I haven’t seen the same for these godolim.”

    Did you really read all their works to reach this conclusion? Not just part of their works, but all of them?

    Also, why do you conclude that FailedMessiah trashed you? It was a very polite disagreement.

  26. Bettino

    Just as much as i dislike militant religious people I also hate militant Ahteits, their just the same.

  27. Robin

    Joshie, Failed Messiah has made it a habit of knocking ex-frummers. He seems unable to share a perch with anyone, least of all former frummer rather than former wannabe frummers like himself.

    What broche does one make on sour grapes?

  28. plainfield aguda

    joshie-shea you are a pathetic divorced loser criticizing saintly people.Dont air your insecurities in public,go speak to someone certified.A gutte nacht


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