Lily Isaacs: You know, I’d never read the Bible before in my life, and I started reading about Jesus. And then I learned that Jesus was a Jew, just like me. And it all started to fit together, just like a puzzle.
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John Fuller: There are few things as meaningful as when a Jewish person discovers that Jesus Christ is their Messiah. That’s the story we’ll be sharing with you today, and thanks for joining us. Uh, your host is Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, today’s guest is Lily Isaacs, co-founder of the southern gospel and bluegrass group, The Isaacs. And, interestingly, uh, Lily was born in Germany right after World War II, and her Jewish parents were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. And you’re gonna hear more about that in just a minute. Uh, The Isaacs have been touring for more than 50 years with 20 albums to their credit. They were recently inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame and became members of the Grand Ole Opry. Lily is the mother of Ben, Sonya, and Rebecca. All three are very talented members of the group.
John: Yeah, and Lily is an author. I don’t know how she finds the time to write books.
Jim: Yeah, no kidding.
John: You know, in the midst of all of that. But she’s got an autobiography that will really capture your interest. It’s called You Don’t Cry Out Loud. We’ve got copies of that here at Focus on the Family, and, uh, you can find yours at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Here now, Lily Isaacs speaking at Christian Heritage Church in Graniteville, South Carolina, on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
Lily: My parents are both full-blooded Jews. My mother and father were born in a town called Czestochowa, Poland. They were born in an era of time when it was unfortunate for Jewish people to be living, and that was in Europe before World War II. But when World War II broke out in 19 and 39, my mother, at that time, was, uh, 14 years old. Living at home with her mother and her younger sisters, the one that was crippled with polio, a brother and another sister. And my father’s entire family, they were still at home as well. I think my grandmother had a premonition because, uh, you know, those days, they didn’t have televisions like we do, and poor families didn’t even have a radio. So in order to hear about what was going on at the beginning of the war I’m sure was difficult. But word got around in the little towns all around Poland that Germany was coming in. But I don’t think, I’m sure that they didn’t know what they were really doing. I’ve often wondered why so many millions of people would allow themselves to be captured and destroyed the way that they were without some type of uprising. But that’s because they didn’t know what was going to happen. When the Germans and the Nazis came into Czestochowa, my grandmother, as I said, she must’ve had a premonition, because she sent my mother and her younger and sister and brother to a neighboring town to buy some groceries. Of course, my mother didn’t know any different, and she went. When she came back that evening, my grandmother and my aunt, who was crippled with polio, was no longer home. I believe it was the next day when the Germans came back for the rest of the people. My father said that they would get on loudspeakers. They’d move in in these trucks and little buses, and over the loudspeakers, they would make announcements, and they would say, “Everybody out on the street. Everybody must come out on the streets.” They made them get down on the ground with their faces on the ground and their hands behind their back, on- behind their neck, and lie there for hours. And they separated families at that time. They separated husbands and wives, fathers from sons, mothers from daughters. “You here, and you go there, and you go here, and you go there.” At that time, my father left his family. He had one brother that went with him through the camps, and he never saw the rest of his family again. He had one surviving brother after the war. My mother was taken with her younger sisters, Lotte, and her younger brother, Mendel. My mother was 14, and the others were 11 and 12 years old. They spent some time in the ghettos. And my father said that after they worked in the ghettos for several months, maybe a year, they put all the Jewish people on trains, and my father spent three days and nights in a caboose of a train, packed in with hundreds of other Jewish people. With no food, no water, and no toilet facilities. He said people were suffocating to death, and they had no place to fall. Human people were holding the dead up, shoulder to shoulder. No place to fall. They finally wound up in the concentration camps. Belsenberger is where they wound up in Germany. At that time, my mother and father only knew of each other. They weren’t married, of course, and had known of each other’s families back in the hometown. My mother’s youngest sister got very ill while she was in the camp, so my mother took a chance of stealing. She said that she’d slip out of the barracks at night, and she would steal food. Or garbage (laughs). My father said it was like Christmastime every day when the soldiers would throw away their potato peeling or coffee grinds out in the yard, and let the people pick them up. And till the day my father died, he never threw away a potato peeling. He ate it first. It was like a steak. Somehow through starvation diets of a crust of bread, a hard crust of bread, and a bowl of water with a little color in it … That’s what they got every day to eat. And they worked hard, slave labor. One time, my father was carrying bricks up a ladder, up and down, up and down. For hours, and it was hot. So he rested for just a moment, and one of the soldiers came by and hit him on the side of the head with one of those bricks. He almost bled to death right there on the ground. And I never will forget when my father passed away, that scar on his forehead where he got hit on the head with that brick. But he managed to pick himself up and work and survive. My parents spent five years in the concentration camps. First in the ghettos and then in the camps. When they were liberated in 19 and 45, they only learned about what happened to the rest of their family. My mother’s youngest brother, Mendel, who was probably 15 years old when the war would’ve been over or close to that, decided with some young men in the camps that they were going to escape. She learned right after the war that they were machine gunned down. Just instantly. My father’s brother that went through the camps with him, every day, he was afraid he wouldn’t get something to eat the next day. So instead of eating that crust of bread, he hid it. He’d go two weeks sometimes without eating anything. He just hid it because he was afraid he wouldn’t get anything else. And when the war was over, he ate too much. His stomach burst, and he died. My father couldn’t even get anyone to bury him. He had to bury him himself. So many stories and atrocities that I’ve heard of all of my life growing up from my parents. Why? I don’t have the answer. I don’t know why. But six million people were killed. Not only Jews, there were others during World War II, and things like that are going on even today in our world. It amazes me to think how a human being can be so cruel to another human life. But it happens. When the war was over, my parents were in Belsenberger. My mother said the day that they found they were being liberated, and they opened up the gates, that all- she said you could see all these people running out into fields and picking up potatoes. She said she had on a skirt, and she grabbed all potatoes out of the ground, and was running with them in her skirt. They were starving. My father was six-foot-one in height and weighed 100 pounds when the war was over. So at that time, there were organizations all over the world that helped Jewish people to rebuild their lives, and they gave opportunities to all the people that had been in the concentration camps to choose where they would want to make a life. That would either be Australia, the United States, Israel, wherever they choose. And you had to have a sponsor. So my mother had an uncle that was, uh, already here in America, and he told them to come here. And they told me that when they came across the harbor there in New York City, and they saw the Statue of Liberty, that meant freedom. That meant a new life. So many immigrants. When they came to the United States of America, it was a new life. They helped us get an apartment in New York City. My father and mother went to night school to learn English. We spoke Yiddish in our home, and I spoke Yiddish till I started kindergarten. Didn’t know how to speak English. My father went to school at night to learn a trade, and he became a baker. A bread baker. So all of my life, I heard stories about my upbringing, and I was very devoted, I am very devoted, to the Jewish people and to the Jewish cause. I’ve always been interested in show business, always had an interest in singing and acting. And I took acting in high school, and I ma- majored in college in acting. And my idea of a future was to be an actress on Broadway in the Jewish theater. And that’s what I wanted to do to make my parents proud of me. So I studied it, and I studied voice lessons, and this was my life. I met a young lady in college at that time who was also a singer, and she and I just started singing together just for the fun of it with two folk guitars. So we started a band, and we called it Lily and Maria. And we started singing around different parties, and college things, and one day, a man was at one of these parties, and he looked at us and he said, uh, “Would you girls like to audition for an album on Columbia Records?” We laughed at him. We said, “Yeah, sure. Tomorrow.” And sure enough, we landed a contract and recorded a folk album in 1967 on Columbia Records. So we started doing some engagements. At that time, I was in college, and took a leave of absence, and tried to pursue a career. We were singing in a little nightclub at the time called Gertie’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. We had an engagement for about five or six weeks there, and it was four guys from Kentucky that had a banjo and a mandolin and a guitar and an upright bass. And I think they came to New York in a little Ford Falcon. They had that bass strapped up on top of that guitar. That must’ve been a sight, huh? And they got up to sing, and play that banjo, and I tell you what, my mouth flew open. Because the only time I’d ever heard a banjo played was on the Beverly Hillbillies. But they were good, and they were called the Greenbriar Boys. And that sparked the relationship. Joe Isaacs, who was the banjo player for the band, and I started dating. And it was quite a combination, let me tell you, because he’s a Kentucky hillbilly, the baby child of 17 children, whose father was a Pentecostal preacher.
Lily: And a Jewish kid from the Bronx, New York, who was a folk singer. But God certainly was in the arrangements. We dated for a couple of years, and we got married in 19 and 70. At that time, of course, he wasn’t a Christian. Even though he was raised in a Christian home, he wasn’t a believer. And I was an unbeliever. I didn’t know what I believed. I really think at that time I probably was even an atheist. I don’t know what. I don’t know if I believed in anything.
John: You’re listening to Focus on the Family. Uh, that is Lily Isaacs, and you can get her book, You Don’t Cry Out Loud, and a CD of this entire presentation to listen to again or pass along to a friend when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or donate and request those at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Let’s continue on now with Focus on the Family. Here’s Lily Isaacs.
Lily: So we decided when we’d get married that this is just the way it would be, and we would just continue on. And, you know, he’d have his belief, and I’d have mine. We moved to Ohio, where his work was. I gave up my career, and I started working in an office. And we were married about 10 months when he had a brother that was four years older than him, one night, right before Christmas, got killed in an automobile accident. And it was a terrible tragedy. Four small children at home, and a wife. And we got a call in the middle of the night one night, and, oh, it was just a terrible time for the family. So at the funeral, of course, I had never been to a funeral before of any kind. It was unusual to me, but it was preaching and singing. But after the funeral, a couple of days after the funeral, they wanted everyone to gather together in my brother-in-law’s home church, where he used to attend. And they invited us all to come. Well, of course, Joe wanted to go, but I didn’t want to go because Jewish people don’t go to church, and it was against my grain. I didn’t really want to go. But my sister-in-law told me if I’d go, she’d buy me a T-bone steak, and I like steak. And I thought well, you know, it wouldn’t- I wouldn’t be much of a wife and family member if I didn’t attend this service. Well, let me tell you, the church we went to that night was a converted garage that was made into a church, and the pastor was an old, blind man. The church was, uh, had wooden pews and wooden floors. It was probably- held 100 people maximum. And we walked in there, and I sat down in the very last pew, just as close to the door as I could get (laughs). And they were singing, and people were crying. There was conviction in the air, and I didn’t know what conviction was. But as I sat there, and I watched, and I listened, something grabbed my heart. And that night, the pastor did not even preach. He made an invitation for people to come to the altar and receive Jesus. And I didn’t know what to do. That night, without even thinking, I got down on my knees on that little wooden pew back by the door. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never prayed before in my life. I couldn’t ask God to save me because I didn’t know that I was lost. I didn’t know how to ask to God to forgive me, because I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong. But that night, I wept my way through to Jesus. I know God understood my tears, and he understands yours. When the words won’t come out, friends, he sees you, already knows. The minute my knee hit the ground, that’s when I opened my heart to Jesus, and he came in. And I begin to read the New Testament. You know, I’d never read the Bible before in my life, and I started reading about Jesus. And then I learned that Jesus was a Jew, just like me. And it all started to fit together just like a puzzle. I was a happy, happy believer. Oh, I was just filled with the spirit, and it was so wonderful. Couldn’t wait to go to church, and listen to the singing, and just be with everyone. Well, one day, one of my first cousins came down from New York to visit with us, and I took him to church with me. He wanted to go. When he got back to New York, he spilled the beans on me, and, um, it wasn’t a secret. But, you see, I had it planned in my mind exactly how I was going to tell my family. I was going to sit them down with me, and I was going to tell them how much I loved them, but I wanted to tell them that I found so much joy and peace through Jesus. But the Lord had a different plan. Well, when my cousin went back to New York, and told my family, unexpectedly, I got a call from my mother and father on my job. And my mother said, “Lily, we found out that you are going to a church, and that you are praying to this Jesus.” She said, “Your father said that he would rather see you dead and buried in the grave than to be a reproach to our family and our people.” She told me that they never wanted to see me again unless I give up that crazy religion I’d found, and that I was never welcome back in their home ever again. And as they were talking to me, I just pictured in my mind all the stories, all the history, all the heritage that they made me think that I was gonna lose. My father, who hobbled up the streets of New York with warm bread in his arms, early morning hours after working all night. Slip a quarter or a dollar bill under my pillow. That’s the way he had of showing me that he loved me. And all of a sudden, he’d rather see me dead? All I did was accepted Jesus as my Messiah. And you know, there was a crossroad in my life at that point. I had to make a choice. I knew it. I knew it. So with the grace of the Lord, I said, “Mom, I don’t want to hurt you and Daddy, but I don’t want to lose what I’ve found.” And do you know for months they wouldn’t speak to me? I’d call home, and they’d hang up. But I learned how to say Jesus, because he was all that I had. I lost my family, I thought I’d lost my people. Jesus became my father. Jesus became my mother. Jesus became my very dearest friend. And still today, even more so today, I praise him tonight. I praise him tonight. He is the Almighty. And you know what? So many times when we go through trials, we don’t know why. And then we look back. It’s only to make us stronger. It’s to make us shine like gold. Through that trial, I really became close to the Lord, and it was months, it was a long time, before my family accepted me back home. But they saw that I wasn’t going to budge, and to this day, I have trouble talking to some of my immediate family. But one day, I was praying, and I said, “Lord, why is it that I get to go all across the country and the world and sing gospel music to people when I can’t even reach my own family, when I can’t even touch my own people?” And the Lord spoke back to me in a still small voice, and he told me, “Live the life before them. And if you go the miles for me, I’ll do the rest.” And that’s what I’ve tried to do. My life’s not been perfect. I’ve had many ups and downs, just like anybody else. But through it all, Jesus has still been my dearest friend. In 1983, I was very sick. I had- was born with scoliosis, and I had two major back surgeries in one month time. Five weeks home from the hospital, I discovered a tumor on my body that shouldn’t have been there. I had to go right back in the hospital again, and I guess one of the things that I dreaded the worst in my life, the doctor said it was cancer. And I didn’t know if I was gonna live to raise my children. But a dear sister looked at me one night in church, she said, “Lily, I had a vision. I saw you standing on a pulpit, and your children were taller than you.” And that’s been 20 years ago.
Lily: Daddy had kidney failure, and he had several heart attacks while he was in the hospital. He was a young man, 69. But while he was in the hospital, the last time we got to see him, I slipped in, and he was so ill. And I just whispered in his ear, I said, “Daddy, do you want me to pray for you?” And he shook his head yes. And we stood there, and I prayed right in his ear. I whispered a prayer. And he couldn’t speak, he was so weak. But when I walked out of the room, he smiled at me. I’ll never forget that smile. I’m looking forward to seeing him again. But let me tell you this. If you’re here tonight, and you’re facing a crossroad in your life, look to Jesus. He will bring you through. No matter what the trial, no matter what the problem, he can be there for you if you just reach out and touch him.
John: Well, Lily Isaacs has certainly been through her share of difficulties, and yet her Messiah, Jesus Christ, has strengthened her and helped her all along the way.
Jim: Yeah, that’s right. And as we often say, being a Christian doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free life. Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” And you and I have, uh, seen this in our own lives. When trouble comes, Jesus comes alongside us, and gives us strength, like he’s done for Lily. If you found Lily’s story to be intriguing, uh, I’d strongly recommend that you get a copy of her autobiography called You Don’t Cry Out Loud. Uh, get a copy from us here at Focus on the Family for a donation of any amount, and the proceeds will go right back into our efforts to strengthen marriages, empower parents, and protect pre-born life. So get in touch with us today.
John: Partner with Focus on the Family in ministry when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or donate online and request Lily’s book at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Have a great weekend and be sure to join us again on Monday when Julie Hornok describes the challenges and unexpected blessings in raising a child with autism.
Julie Hornok: If you have a child with any diagnosis, um, any special needs diagnosis, any mental health issues, autism, you have been chosen by God for a different life.
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Julie: You know? It’s not that this thing happened to you. It’s that he chose you to live a non-traditional life.