Miriam Sandler is one of the most talented, powerful female singers in the Jewish world today. Her performances are rare, but highly prized. Few are aware that Miriam sang with global pop stars in her pre-religious days. Miriam has passionate views about popular culture, women and modesty. I caught up with her to hear them.
How did you come to sing and tour with pop stars?
One of my music teachers at the University of Miami was singing background at that time for pop star Gloria Estefan. He really believed in me and started recommending me for singing jobs. By virtue of him, I started singing professionally. Eventually he recommended me to Gloria’s band. It helped that I speak Spanish fluently. The Spanish-speaking market was a much easier market to break into in South Florida. When I graduated college, I went straight into singing internationally, traveling, singing background for [music industry legends] like Julio Iglesias, James Brown, Michael McDonald and many more.
What was the most exciting moment for you as a performer in those days?
The music starts and you are on. It’s an enormous rush of adrenaline that takes over your body.
That moment just before the curtain goes up. The lights are dark, all the musicians are waiting backstage, I’m waiting for the countdown, which is when the music starts. And then it happens. And you are on. It’s an enormous rush of adrenaline that takes over your body. It dazzles you, the bright lights, loud music, thousands of people in the audience, a film crew in your face, other dancers you’re interacting with. It’s like a big explosion of feeling, movement, sound, visuals. We did that night after night in many different countries, Central America, Europe, Japan, Canada and throughout the United States.
You spent huge amounts of time with celebrities, as that proverbial fly on the wall. What were their lives like up close?
We traveled together, we lived together on the road, we saw very closely what their life is all about. I realized it was chaos. It’s really kind of like Hell, actually. When you become a famous person you have all these people at your beck and call – make-up artists, physical fitness people working you out, chefs making the food you like. Your ego explodes and you become a mini-god, a tyrant. No way can you trust anyone. If you are interested in having any real friendship, for who you are and not what you have to offer, you’ll never have that in your life. You have become your voice and your talent. You become enslaved to your record label or whoever is pulling the strings on top and you have to do and watch everything they say.
Did you, as part of the entourage, experience any of the trappings of fame?
Whenever I hung out with these famous musicians, I got the royal treatment also. That’s why people attach themselves to these entourages. That’s why the relationships with these performers are so fake.
When did your spiritual shift happen?
I was about to go out on a world tour with Gloria, and my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given three to six months to live. At that point I put the brakes on my whole life. I just realized I had to be there for him. I didn’t go out on tour and decided to stay home. We started going to a Conservative type of shul. Neither of us read or understood any Hebrew so we ended up in a Reform temple where most of the prayers were in English. I started asking my self all those heavy duty questions that hopefully people get to. What’s our purpose, what does God want from me, and why do I have today to live? I saw that it wasn’t a given. Instead of living three to six months, my father lived 18 months. Three weeks after he passed away, I started learning Torah with a rabbi at a yeshiva in Miami Beach.
When I saw my dad lose his life, I realized, today’s the day. I can’t wait.
The ideas weren’t totally unfamiliar to me. My sister had moved to Israel and done teshuva hard core and had ten children and her husband learning in kollel. When I was 18, I remember having hours and hours of conversation with her about life and what it was all about. She primed me; she really introduced these concepts of Shabbos and modesty. It made a hundred percent sense to me, even though I wasn’t ready at 18 to swallow the pill. The prospect of singing, of traveling the world, it was too dazzling for me, too alluring. The brilliant relationship you can have with God, it wasn’t shining out to me. When I saw my dad lose his life, I realized, today’s the day. I can’t wait.
What happened to your music during that time?
For all those 18 months I did local gigs. I stopped traveling.
What did the bands say?
They got somebody else. I was just another number, another singer. My friends from the band knew where I was headed. Some of them are still jumping around on stage, like they’re in their twenties
What was the transition period like?
Toward the latter part of my time in Florida, I was doing recording sessions for the song writers. They asked me to demo a song for some pretty major celebrities. By that time, I was keeping Shabbos. I was already in a long skirt and long sleeve shirt. That was very odd for Florida. People don’t dress like that, especially in the entertainment industry, and also because it’s so hot. The funny thing about my last recording session is, I remember singing very differently at that point. My colleagues said to me, “You sound so different. Your voice is so free, so rich. I’ve never heard you sound so great.”
I no longer cared about any of them. That’s when my voice totally opened up.
Listen to how ironic that was. Up until then, I was so enslaved to the pop stars and these other big producers. Every time they walked into a room I thought I had to sound great, I had to look great and impress them so that I would get the job and I would get the gig and be chosen. But what ended up happening was, as soon as I no longer had to impress them, as soon as I had one foot out the door, then I could really sing. I no longer cared about any of them. That’s when my voice totally opened up. I was able to sing like I’d never sung before. I didn’t care about them anymore.
I also remember going out to do my errands. People looked at me differently in my long skirt and long sleeves. Instead of gawking and checking me out, all of a sudden the people I was attracting were people who were treating me with respect. I automatically attracted deeper, mores refined interactions. I wasn’t expressing myself like a body walking around waiting to get attention.
What was it like when you started performing for women only?
I remember the first time I saw an all women’s band. I’d ended up learning at Neve Yerushalayim. The rabbi interviewing me suggested I go to an all-women’s concert that was playing that night, and it would be cool to see them perform.
I went into this room with hundreds of women. Quite a sizable band --10 to 15 women on stage. It was like nothing I’d experienced. For one, there were no men in the audience. All the songs were about prayer, the Temple, God, teshuva -- and it was holy. It was the first time I’d ever experienced music being holy. It was very powerful. Eventually when I started performing with that band, I remember thinking, “This is why God gave me a voice. Wow, I finally got here, I finally figured it out, this is where I was supposed to be.”
Sometimes I cry when I’m singing on stage. I have to gird myself so that I don’t lose it.
It almost sounds like you’re praying as you perform, like your singing is a form of prayer.
Songwriting feels a bit like prophecy.
Yeah. I think that another reason I feel so emotional when I get on stage. I feel to a certain degree these songs, these messages, these tunes and notes, they just come into your head from God, they get inserted there. Any songwriter who takes the credit, it’s really ridiculous. Songwriting feels a bit like prophecy. I get so emotional because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I know what it’s like to get up and sing trashy lyrics and sing elevated lyrics. The extremes blow me away.
Do people ask if you miss those days of being able to perform before the world, whenever, wherever you wanted?
People say: Isn’t it a bummer you can’t perform on Shabbos, isn’t it a bummer that you have to cover your hair, isn’t it a bummer about Kol Isha (the prohibition against men hearing a woman sing)?
When I think what it’s like to be non-religious, to see how men and women were so lax about relationships, I feel like all these laws of modesty were the biggest blessing for me. Thank God, I can put on a long skirt, long sleeve shirt and cover my hair, and now men and women look at me like I’m a soul, not just a body walking around with a beautiful face. It’s my salvation. A woman who doesn’t have that, she’s missing out.
I’ve seen you perform. It’s like there’s an electric energy field around you. It’s coming out of your fingertips and the way you hold yourself and of course your voice. It’s not something I’ve seen too often. It’s as if you gathered up all that passion and energy from your pre-religious days, gathered up the sparks of life there, extracted it, distilled it, and funneled it into a holy experience. It’s a life force that’s unusual.
I’ve had other performers come up to me who said, “Miriam, when you go on stage, it’s like a volcano. It’s an explosion of power. You’ve got to go on a road tour.” I poo poo this. Right now, I just have to be a mom. You know what I mean? When I have a performance, my whole family life has to be put on the brakes.
I have a unique gift, the voice that God stirred inside me. Performances for me are like magical experiences. But sometimes overexposure makes it not so special. That’s why I can’t over-use my voice. I used to be a singing telegram girl, and go into a public place and sing to a person. It’s fun to blow people away like that. But I can’t do that anymore. Because what I have is so special, I have to use it in a special place.
Visit Miriam’s site at miriamsandler.com
A modified version of this article originally appeared in Ami Magazine.