Journey to the Promised Land
by Andrea Stock
With a family name of Epstein, you would assume Kathie Lee, three-time Emmy-winning co-host of the TODAY show, came from a Jewish home. And you would be right . . . mostly.
Kathie Lee’s grandfather was a Jewish man who came to America, running from the pogroms in Russia in the early 1900s. Kathie Lee’s father was born in Annapolis, MD, but he was raised by his mom after his father left the family early on. Kathie Lee says her grandfather was “a very generous, sweet man to the poor in the area, but a terrible father and husband.”
Kathie Lee’s father, on the other hand, was a different story.
“My daddy was actually the finest human being I’ve ever known in my life,” Kathie Lee affirms.
Not long before he died, Kathie Lee’s dad told her about a hot summer day when he was eight years old and his mom kicked all five kids out of the house because they were being too noisy. She told them to go to the church down the road where they were having Vacation Bible School. Kathie Lee’s dad went and accepted Jesus into his heart that day.
As far as celebrating any Jewish traditions growing up, Kathie Lee wishes they had. Every now and then, Kathie Lee’s mom and dad would drive into Baltimore on the weekend and go to Lombard Street to pick up Challah bread and bagels and some of the Jewish foods that her dad had grown up with. But that was it.
“So many people are Jewish in culture only or by blood. Just like there are so many culturally Christian people,” Kathie Lee explains. “It’s religion without relationship, which I think is one of the saddest experiences you can have in life. Religion is no good to you unless there is a relationship behind it.”
Yet there was always a longing in Kathie Lee’s life for the Holy Land. “It’s one of those things that the Holy Spirit places in your heart for His own reasons, and you don’t even know why it’s there,” she says.
In June of 1971, for her high school graduation, Kathie Lee’s dad surprised her and her mother with a trip to Israel for the Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Prophecy, since Kathie Lee was fascinated by end times.
“I’ve always been a Bible nerd in some weird way,” Kathie Lee admits. “I missed my high school graduation, and I could have cared less because I was going to Israel. I was so excited.”
That was Kathie Lee’s first trip to Israel. Now, she’s lost track of how many times she’s been. She went several times after her first trip to do recordings for work. Then there was a 30-year period when she didn’t go at all because she was married and raising her two children, Cody and Cassidy.
During that time, Kathie Lee’s television career had taken off with the multiple Emmy-nominated morning talk show Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee, where she worked alongside Regis Philbin for 15 years. Not long after starting, she married Frank Gifford in 1986.
Frank Gifford was a Pro Football Hall of Fame member, well-known for his time with the New York Giants. Following his 12-year NFL career, Gifford worked as an Emmy Award-winning sports commentator.
THE ROCK, THE ROAD AND THE RABBI
In 2012, Kathie Lee and her husband went on one of their most memorable trips to Israel—their first rabbinical trip with Bible teacher Ray Vander Laan, founder of That the World May Know.
“I was experiencing a real malaise of the soul and needed something fresh,” Kathie Lee recalls. “We went on this trip, and my eyes were blown out of my sockets by Ray’s teaching.”
Kathie Lee said that Ray had told them that the trouble with the Bible is not the Bible, but how it’s been translated and misunderstood through the centuries. Instead, the Bible should be studied in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek.
“The Bible is written by Middle Easterners for Middle Easterners. And we try to understand it and apply our own Western values and understanding and mindset, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t translate,” she explains.
“If I’m going to base my life on something, it has to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” Kathie Lee states.
After that first rabbinical trip, she knew this was something that needed to be shared. “Too many people don’t go to the Holy Land. They love Jesus and they go to church every week, but it would never occur to them to actually go to the Holy Land,” Kathie Lee says.
Recently, she wrote a book about her journey through the Promised Land. The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi will be available at a Christian bookstore near you in early March 2018. The title reflects the three foundational components of her journey.
“The Rock of course is Jesus,” Kathie Lee explains. “Jesus said, ‘Upon this Rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ He was not talking about Peter. He knew Peter was going to betray him three times, very soon. Peter would become a great leader of the church, but God would never base His kingdom on a human being. His kingdom is based on what Peter said, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. The Spirit of God has.’ So Jesus is the Rock that we build our whole lives on and eternity hangs on.”
The road is the ancient paths that are still there today—the places where Jesus lived out His earthly ministry, where God and Abraham made their covenant. And although this book was written with Kathie Lee’s good friend Rabbi Jason Sobel, who she says is “a brilliant, genius Bible teacher,” the rabbi is not about an actual rabbi.
“It’s about the Word of God as taught by the rabbis,” Kathie Lee says. “They go ten layers deeper than any sermon you’re going to get in the church, because they know God that well.”
One of the most life-changing events on that trip happened in the Valley of Elah, which Kathie Lee says has not changed since David fought Goliath there.
“There’s not a T-shirt shop, a Coke stand—there’s nothing,” she begins. “It’s just the valley with the two hillsides where the Philistines were and the Israelites were, cowering in fear for 40 days and 40 nights.
“It just blew Frank’s mind because the teaching we got there was that the miracle of David and Goliath was not that a shepherd could destroy a big foe. Because we read in the Scriptures, David had already killed lions and bears as a young man. He had been prepared for that his whole life. He had the skills of a fine shepherd. The miracle of David and Goliath was that David had a personal relationship with the Living God of Israel. That’s what separated him from all of the so-called men of the Israelite army.
“David went with the skills he already had, but with the knowledge that he knew God personally, he was His friend. And that gave him the strength to not be afraid and to throw the stone.”
While Kathie Lee and her husband were with Ray Vander Laan and their group of 18 people in the Valley of Elah, Ray had each of them go down to the brook and pick up their own stone. Kathie Lee and Frank came back from Israel with four stones. One stone was a graduation gift for their daughter. Another stone was a gift for their son who graduated from USC film school. The other two stones, Frank put in their library, his trophy room at their house.
“You can imagine what kind of trophy room it is,” Kathie Lee says. “He’s in eight halls of fame this man. And after we went to Israel, all Frank wanted to do was take people in there, and not look at the bust of him in the hall of fame or all the Emmys, no, he wanted to show them his two stones from the brook at Elah. It had been that powerful in his life.”
THE LITTLE GIANT
From that experience, Kathie Lee wrote a song with her friend David Pomeranz called “What Is Your Stone?” After writing that song, Kathie Lee was asked if she would consider writing a musical.
“There’s a need for musicals for kids in our churches,” Kathie Lee says. “And since the story of David and Goliath is an old Jewish story, I wanted it to be in synagogues too. I want Christians to understand their Jewish heritage. Everything important that ever happened in Jesus’ life happened on one of the Jewish festival days. And Christians can’t even name them.”
“It was an all-male story until Bathsheba showed up in that bathtub. That’s how beautiful women will change things,” Kathie Lee quips. “So I thought of a Greek chorus, and since David was a shepherd, the girls could be the sheep that love David. And since they’re animals and kids love bathroom humor, they all have flatulence problems. . . . So yes, I have farting sheep. It doesn’t make me a bad Christian.”
“Because of my theater work for all of my life, you have to make it entertaining,” Kathie Lee continues. “That’s what’s wrong with so much of the stuff in our churches today. It’s boring! No wonder we’re getting our entertainment from another place other than the church. It’s not exciting. It’s not excellent. I don’t mean to be tough, but I’ve been in this business for 50 years, and I know entertainment. That’s my world.
“I always want to bring excellence,” Kathie Lee adds. “Whatever we do we should do unto the Lord with all the excellence we can bring.”
In The Little Giant recording, Kathie Lee plays Sheeba. “She’s the leader of the sheep,” she sings in her sheep voice. Her friend, four-time Tony nominee Gregg Edelman is the voice of Goliath and King Saul. Even Regis makes an appearance. “He’s hysterical! He’s just so funny in it,” Kathie Lee exclaims.
The voice of David is a young boy named Aidan Gemme from Broadway’s Finding Neverland. While recording one of the songs, Kathie Lee noticed Aidan’s mom was crying. She learned that the whole family is Jewish, but she is the only one who believes in God. To have her son be the voice of such an iconic Bible character filled her with tears of joy.
“That’s the way our Lord works,” Kathie Lee says. “No crumbs on His table. No crumbs.”
Since nothing is wasted with the Lord, when they had finished recording The Little Giant in the studio at Kathie Lee’s house, she got one of Frank’s stones out of his trophy room and gave it to Aidan and told him, “Frank would want you to have this.”
The dedication in The Little Giant reads: “In loving memory of Frank, who was changed in Israel when he learned to throw his stone.”
HE SAW JESUS
Frank Gifford passed away at their home in Connecticut on Sunday, August 9, 2015.
“I found him that morning,” Kathie Lee shares. “And I’ve been okay from that very moment on. Because I saw his face. He saw Jesus, and Jesus took his breath away. That has been what got me through. I know where my husband is.”
Kathie Lee wrote a song that she performed on the TODAY show on October 12 that explains how she’s gotten through Frank’s passing.
The song, “He Saw Jesus,” was written with a guest Kathie Lee met on the TODAY show, Brett James, who penned the songs “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “There’s Something in the Water.”
The second verse of the song says, “No, I didn’t lose him, I know right where he is. He was never really mine. He was always His. And though I miss his kisses and can’t fill that empty space. It helps when I remember that sweet look on his face.”
Kathie Lee recently lost her mother too. But she quickly adds, “I didn’t lose her. I know right where she is.”
“People think I’m crazy because it looks like I’m not grieving,” she says. “No, I’m grateful that they are with Jesus. They wouldn’t come back if they could. I’m not going to want to come back when I see Jesus. That’s the hope of heaven. That’s the hope of eternal life. And we’re supposed to start living it here. It doesn’t start when we die. It starts when we first meet Jesus, our Savior.”
Yes, she still cries. And yes, the holidays are hard. But this hope is what has gotten her and her children through.
“God meets all our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ,” she shares. “And His grace is sufficient for a 24-hour period, and that means every day we get a fresh cup of mercy. And every time when I go downstairs and pour my cup of coffee, it’s symbolic to me. I always say out loud, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for a fresh cup of mercy for today.’”
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS
As Kathie Lee heads into 2018, she’s going to continue to trust on a daily basis.
“I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions,” she explains. “Whether it’s December 31 or January 1, it’s a brand new opportunity—it’s a brand new day in Christ. I just don’t think we should do life the way the world does. God’s given us something better.”
The past few years however, she has asked the Lord for a word—a word from Him of what He wants her to focus on in the coming year.
The year that Frank passed away, the word was boldness. That year, Kathie Lee was able to share about Frank and the stone on the TODAY show with 80 million people. The year after Frank passed away, the word was harvest. Kathie Lee saw a harvest of souls because of what she had shared about bringing God’s shalom—His justice and righteousness—to her world. And for Kathie Lee, her world happens to be in the spotlight.
“The Lord has placed me in such a unique position,” Kathie Lee admits. “I pinch myself everyday that God has placed me here. Years and years ago people would say to me, ‘You can’t be a Christian. How can you be in show business and call yourself a Christian?’ And I used to say, ‘I call myself a Christian because I believe in Jesus. It has nothing to do with where I work.’
“I’ve been blessed beyond belief because I don’t separate the secular from the spiritual,” she concludes. “This is where God has placed me for such a time as this.”
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