Clifton, NJ – Although she had a very Jewish-sounding name growing up, Miriam Mandelkern was not raised in a devout Jewish home. Miriam was born in New York, but her family moved to Miami, Florida when she was five, and she attended public school as an average American Jew.
Music had always been among her interests. In high school, in an Exclusive interview with VIN News she reports, she had always been “doing vocal groups and jazz vocal ensembles,” and as a youngster between the ages of 7 to 9, she remembers “taking long showers and performing for myself.”
Still, she insists that she never wanted to become a pop star—which she never did but very well may have had her father not died (but more on that later).
“Some people, you know, they just dream about becoming famous,” she observes, “but that’s not something that I wanted to do.” It was only when 18-year-old Miriam graduated high school that “I kind of realized I had to take a major, so I picked music because that’s what I had been doing.”
In college, Miriam met vocal coach John Secada, who had been singing background vocals for Latin pop superstar Gloria Estefan. That was the first time she began taking private lessons, and her innate talent began to grow. “He really believed in me. He encouraged me to take my singing more seriously,” Miriam remembers.
At Secada’s encouragement, Miriam attended the University of Miami’s excellent jazz vocal department there. Thanks also to Secada, Miriam was introduced at the same time to the Latin recording industry scene, centered as it is in Miami, home to America’s largest Cuban population.
Miriam got her start doing commercial and advertising jingles for Spanish-language TV and radio (she speaks fluent Spanish), quickly moving into doing studio background vocals for Latin artists. “The Latin industry was easier to break into,” she explains. “It was easier for opportunities to perform.”
As her name got around, Miriam soon found herself being called upon to provide background vocals not just in the studio but live on stage too. She found herself recording and performing live on stage with such Latin icons as Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias and Fito Paez, and even recording studio background tracks for such legends as the late James Brown and Michael McDonald.
After her college graduation, her early coach and mentor John Secada secured a solo recording deal and needed his own band. Naturally, he called upon his old student to join his musicians as a backup vocalist, and Miriam found herself on Secada’s breakout tour across Europe.
Over the next few years, life was one big fast-paced party for Miriam Mandelkern.
Every singing superstar has his or her entourage: porters, bodyguards, managers and agents and personal assistants, sound engineers, band members and, of course, stage background vocalists and/or dancers—and as a vocalist and dancer, Miriam had become a valuable part of Gloria Estefan’s crew.
She toured the world with the Latin pop goddess, harmonizing and dancing live before tens of thousands of wild young fans throughout the Americas and as far away as Japan. Given Estefan’s popularity, a nice Jewish girl originally from New York found herself singing in Spanish on America’s most popular TV shows, at a White House special event for George Bush (the first), and even at a Command Performance for the Queen of England.
And in 1998, well before Guantanamo Bay was a household word synonymous with alleged torture of terrorists, the Cuban-born Estefan, backed up by one Miriam Mandelkern (among others), delivered a morale-boosting performance for thousands of her former countrymen intercepted at sea whilst attempting to reach Florida’s shores.
But something happened deep within Miriam while bouncing around and living hard.
“While we were traveling I saw their lifestyles, traveling and living with these people,” she observes on the superstar life. “Going from one city to another, always on buses and planes, getting up at all hours… I started thinking about what kind of a life I wanted because it wasn’t such a s great lifestyle. People’s personal lives were in shambles. So I started reflecting on what my different options were.”
However, if life is a solo performance, then friends and family with positive influence are its background vocalists. And for Miriam Mandelkern, the background vocalists in her own life were her oldest sister and later, her father.
“My sister became a baalas teshuvah when I was 12. She’s been in Israel for 20 years now, and she introduced me to a lot of the Torah concepts,” reminisces Miriam.
When a young Miriam was 18, her oldest sister, then already married and residing in the Holy Land, returned to Miami for a visit. Miriam recalls several long conversations about Yiddishkeit and how it all made sense. “It sounded good, but my career was just taking off and I had gotten all these opportunities to sing with all these famous people and travel,” Miriam says. “At that point in my life I was not ready to start keeping Shabbos. I wanted to pursue my career.”
Eight years later, in the thick of her singing and touring, the thing that made her stop and take a step back was her father’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer—and a prognosis of 3-6 months maximum left to live.
It was life-changing for the entire family, and certainly for Miriam. She decided to stop traveling and instead spend as much time as possible with her father in Miami.
Seeking something Jewish through which to bond, father and daughter found themselves attending a Conservative temple but it was apparently a fairly traditional establishment, and the unlettered Mandelkerns couldn’t keep up with all the Hebrew prayers. “We didn’t know what was going on and we eventually ended up in Reform. There was a lot more English there—we got a lot more out of that.”
Tragically, Mr. Mandelkern died a year and a half after his initial diagnosis.
In the months leading up to his passing, however, Miriam had been increasingly reflecting on the meaning of life and the type of life she wanted to have. “I had become much more connected to G-d and spirituality even though I knew nothing about Judaism,” she recalls.
Miriam was now 27. It was a few weeks before her father died. A religious friend of her father’s came over to visit, and the two men agreed on thing: What would be with Miriam?
As the youngest of the three Mandelkern children, all girls, Miriam’s path was the least certain; her two older sibling were married and set for life on the paths of their choosing while Miriam was “just floating around,” she recalls. Here is where those conversations with her sister kicked in, not to mention her previous sojourn to Israel. “I want to learn Torah,” she told the family friend.
Three short weeks after Mr. Mandelkern went to his eternal rest, Miriam was introduced to Rabbi Rafael Marlowe, a teacher affiliated with Miami’s renowned Talmudic University yeshivah founded by Orthodox Rabbi Yochanan Zweig.
Rabbi Marlowe taught Torah to the young singer for a year and a half. “Initially I thought it would be some intellectual stimulation, kind of something interesting and different,” says Miriam, “But as we would get together and learned, I just loved everything he was teaching and I would soak it up. I couldn’t get enough, even though we were just learning chumash and basic hashkafos.”
During her father’s illness, Miriam had put the brakes on her rough-living, on-the-road pop-star-accessory lifestyle. But she still actively moved in local music circles, making the rounds of all major Miami studios, clubs and bands.
But she had also become significantly more traditional Jewish-wise.
“I had cut back on the performing. I had given up Friday nights, but not Saturday nights,” says Miriam. “I would break Shabbos early and go perform. I would go to shul on Shabbos day dressed all tznius and then on late Shabbos afternoon, I would go to the clubs, put on my funky clothes and do my stage stuff. My rabbi said, ‘You’re living two different lives.’”
At that point, Miriam made the one decision that perhaps changed her life more than anything else.
“I had been to Israel before, but this was the first time I had gone to learn about being Jewish,” she recalls. Miriam spent eight months studying in Nevei Yerushalayim, the international Jewish-literacy destination for formerly-secular professional Jewish women from all over the world. As such, Miriam found herself in good company. “I learned quite a bit” from her classmates—and “once they heard about my professional background, they introduced me to Tofa’ah,” the an all-women band of frum female musicians.
As a matter of fact, Miriam’s very first night at Nevei featured a live performance by Tofaah for (of course) an all-woman audience. “It was a fascinating, life-changing time because I realized that music can be a holy, spiritual, tznius thing,” recalls she. “My exposure was otherwise.”
She then segues into commentary on the world she was quickly leaving behind.
“The people [stars and their entourage] are really egomaniacs. I was desperately seeking depth and holiness and connection to Hashem, and the music business is so totally void of it,” she wistfully points out. “Their lifestyles are so bad for them.”
Miriam notes how “on the outside, the media and TV make these superstars look like they’re so happy.” She points out that the unspoken message to viewers, particularly to the youth, is “Don’t you want to be like them?” In Miriam’s first-hand experience, however, their relationships are crumbling, the industry is riddled with deceit and disrespect for others, and women in the field are “treated like garbage.” “When someone would ask me what I thought or what I felt, I felt like they didn’t really want to know what I thought or felt,” she remembers. “I was just an object.”
Miriam spent about eight months studying at Nevei, and this time, her Torah study was at a whole new level of seriousness. The breakthrough, the commitment, had been made.
Miriam returned to Miami in a brand-new frame of mind, her true identity found. Gone were the insecurities about dress, appearance and voice that plague the secular singer. She knew who she was from the inside.
She returned to the studio, this time to rework her original music and lyrics around her new Torah values. For their part, the top-level producers she worked with were astounded not at her change in life, but in the change in her actual voice. “What happened to you? You sound totally different!” she heard. “Becoming frum actually has made be a better singer,” Miriam explains, with the confidence stemming from newfound identity and happiness, and her connection to her soul, finding voice in her singing—something that the seasoned studio pros immediately discerned.
In 2001, the next major change occurred in Miriam’s life when she met her husband and became Miriam Sandler, Jewish wife, homemaker and eventually, mother of three. The Sandlers settled down in Clifton, New Jersey, part of greater Passaic’s Orthodox community, and Miriam threw herself into full-time Jewish life. Music was simply less important.
However, Miriam’s friends and fans didn’t give up. They constantly asked her when her CD would be coming out. Finally, Miriam realized that “it’s mamish an obligation. Women need chizuk, so I realized I’m obligated to do it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have it if I wasn’t meant to use it.”
So back to the studio Miriam went, emerging with new pop-style songs on her debut album, The Solution, all centered around Jewish topics such as tznius and sholom bayis. Most recently, Last week June 23 Miriam performed for 200 women at Tiferes Israel in Passaic, NJ . “My priority now is to get my music out there,” she says.
Does she have any regrets?
“I really do not,” she asserts. “I have a lot of clarity and a lot of sholom. I experienced what it was like to be at top, to have “dream-come-true” success and being what secular society calls “success”—it’s really all superficial and sheker. I can live my life as a Torah-observant woman, knowing that everything I’m doing is sholom and emes. I appreciate everything I have and I know it because it’s given me everything I’ve always craved.”
But is creating secular-style music with Torah lyrics really capable of changing the minds of young women who would other abandon their faith to taste the outside world?
“Absolutely,” she believes. “At-risk teens are girls who are just trying [to experiment] for whatever reason—not having gotten the proper chinuch or not exposed to nurturing spiritually—and are just attracted to the unknown, to secular society, so they seek other possible experiences. They haven’t been introduced to a Jewish environment that’s been good for them. Some of them need perhaps a special approach to Judaism. They haven’t gotten that special message to appreciate what they have. I have first-hand knowledge that all that secularism is bad for their neshamos.”
“When you’re not frum you’re worried about what everyone thinks of you and your image, and what happened after I became frum was it all went away. I realized none of those people were important,” Miriam says.
The message that there’s no place like home runs like a red thread throughout The Solution. “It’s a very specific sound,” explains Miriam. “A lot of frum girls are looking for secular music, so it’s very cool sounding and contemporary. A lot of mothers are very excited because now they have something to give their daughters to listen.”
Asked to specify, Miriam says her music is mostly pop, with some songs more rock-influenced and others with more of a dance flavor. “I would say [title track] “The Solution” sounds like a dance tune,” says Miriam. “People love it because it has the sound of a shofar in it as symbol of teshuvah.” She then adds that she even asked a rabbi whether the sacred shofar could be sounded in the studio for album-recording purposes, and was told yes, with a community shul member coming down with the ram’s horn for a unique studio recording session.
If there is one song that captures the spirit of her message in this album, Miriam thinks it’s “Look like a Queen,” a song about modesty.
“In the industry, the way you look is very important,” explains Miriam. “I think women perceive the way they look as their identity. Women get a lot of attention for how they look, but the way you look is not who you are—who you are is your neshamah. I always wanted people to listen to what I had to say and look at me as a person, not as an object, but people were lured by external appearances.”
“When I changed the way I dressed, that’s when I was appreciated for my internal self, for the true person that I am, the spiritual side, the hidden side of the woman,” she goes on. “It raised my self-esteem and I started to respect myself. It was a life-changing alteration because it was something that I was wanted but didn’t know how to get it.”
Above all, Miriam sees her music as a mission. “I love meeting young women who want to know what to do with their lives, I love sharing my life’s experiences. I’ve been there, and it’s better here.”
Miriam Sandler’s debut album, The Solution, is available now only at Z.Berman 113 Main Ave Passaic, NJ 07055-4426, (973) 471-1765 and shortly on her website at MiriamSandler.com. Please note Miriam’s music is intended exclusively for female audiences”. Men CAN view the website, they just can’t listen to the music.