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My Song

My Song

From singing with Gloria Estefan to women-only concerts. One of the most talented female singers in the Jewish world speaks her mind.

by

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.

Related Article: From Song to Song

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.

Published: September 27, 2012


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Visitor Comments: 10

(7) Anonymous, October 10, 2012 4:03 AM

wow TOFA AH

i can understand how the band Tofa ah could cause Miriam to turn to a religious way of life and performing U have to see them to believe it They have been around for 30 yrs helping bring people to spirituality and closer to Hashem. Ladies, they have a concert coming up Oct 16 Rechov Chai Taib 22 8 30 pm Seeing is believeing why hasn t Aish ever done an article on them???

(6) Miri-Aliza, October 9, 2012 12:53 PM

You should have thanked Tofa'ah - the band that gave you your frum break

The all-woman band that gave you, Miriam Sandler, your first insight into the uplifting power of Jewish women's music, and gave you the opportunity to use your great talents in a kosher, uplifting way by letting you perform with them has a name and it would have been basic hakarat hatov to have mentioned it. The band you went to see that night - and later performed with - was Tofa'ah, the first all-woman frum band. Without them and the hard, trailblazing work they have done (and continue to do) the rest of us frum women performers would not be where they are today. I'm a musician, not a singer, but I never fail to mention the debt I owe Tofa'ah for what they've done and do in supporting frum women performers. You might also have mentioned that you've recorded Tofa'ah songs on your CDs. Refering to a band you've performed with and whose songs you still sing simply as "that band" seems , to be honest, not very gracious. Perhaps you did express your gratitude and appreciation for the debt you owe the women of Tofa'ah (especially Yona Yakobovitz and Mindy Fuhrer), and that part of the article was simply edited out, but in case you didn't, please think about it in the future.

(5) Ann, October 5, 2012 3:06 PM

What a wonderful article, every bit of it so true about the music world. Something happens when you sing for others, a good healing thing. HaShem just recently let me sing again, after being away from it for ten years. It is so different this time: I sing because it is my portion to do so for others, not because I have to be the best and command attention. Miriam Sandler, you are a real inspiration to me, and thank you Mrs. King Feuerman for such a fine piece.

(4) CPerdomo, October 5, 2012 11:32 AM

Similar experience

Amazing story... it reminds me of my situation; although I never sang for big stars. I think the reason Mrs. Sandler feels like crying while singing is because she's experiencing the anointing of Adonai... His presence. There's nothing that can top that experience. Some of us singers were created for one purpose only; to bring glory and to lift up the name of the G-d of Abraham, Issac, and Israel. Baruch Hashem!

(3) ruth housman, October 5, 2012 10:47 AM

what inspires us all

This is an inspiring article. I do deeply believe it's ALL GOD, and so when you wrote about where the songs are coming from, it resonates for me. It is very difficult to "tell" other people this truth. I know this is true, and that what follows, in seeing this, is a deep humility of soul which you obviously feel, and you live it! A long time ago I made a Vow which morphed into, WOW, and that was, given an outstanding coincidence in my life, that drew from two totally disparate parts, and tied them together, that I could prove on paper, given "More", by way of a life, that there is a God, because God chooses to hide, as in SOD. I never expected what happened but it hailed on me, and has been haiiing ever since, massive coincidence that cannot be, random. And so I KNOW and keep a Diary. It's in Providence at Brown University, the Hay Library, the Yoken Collection of letters, and it is deeply about the aleph bet, about the deconstruction of language, the alchemy of language across Babel which means, gate. For me, the gates are now opening, to a deep and beautiful story. We're all in it. I do believe this story, one story, your story, everyone's story, can and will, change the world. To follow the lieder!

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