2017-03-29 / Voice at the Shore

Local musician and filmmaker finds niche combining Judaism and the arts

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Sally Mitlas (left) with Rabbi Yaacov Orimland of Young Israel of Margate and his wife, Rebbetzin Suey Orimland, at the JCC Community Purim celebration. Sally Mitlas (left) with Rabbi Yaacov Orimland of Young Israel of Margate and his wife, Rebbetzin Suey Orimland, at the JCC Community Purim celebration. “Amazing!” said one man; “Just like the Russian dancers in Fiddler on the Roof,” said another woman, as they watched two male dancers turn and do low kicks while balancing bottles on their hats at the Community Purim Party at the JCC on March 12. The dancers, along with a talented group of Klezmer musicians and a juggler performing during cocktail hour, were supplied by Mitlas Productions, an entertainment company started by Sally Mitlas.

“Our niche is that we combine the best of both worlds— Jewish and American,” said Mitlas, who moved to Margate last fall. “We advertise that we can go from the warmth of Havdalah to today’s hottest hits.”

Mix together Judaism, the arts, and a load of creative talent, and you get Sally Mitlas. Music. Film. Art. She has brought her Judaism and creativity to all of these media and won accolades for her work.

Two of her documentary films, “A Hero in Heaven,” and “A Green Kippah”—both about Americans who gave their lives for Israel—are frequently shown in Israel and elsewhere in the world on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Her extensive knowledge of Yiddish music and traditions has also made Mitlas a sought-after performer at traditional simchas. At a wedding this summer in Italy, she will be performing a traditional Eastern European Krenzel or “crowning ceremony,” singing Yiddish songs and presenting a crown of flowers to parents who are marrying off their youngest child. She has also won awards for micrography— calligraphy using tiny Hebrew letters.

Mitlas, whose production company is based in the Philly area, decided to relocate to Margate after spending a summer here. “I know it sounds funny but it reminded me of being in Israel. I liked being by the sea. I liked being able to ride a bike everywhere,” said Mitlas, who does much of her work in coffee shops, on computer, communicating with performers and editors all over the world.

It didn’t take long for her to find a spiritual home at Young Israel of Margate. “Rabbi Orimland and his wife are so exceptional,” said Mitlas, who does not consider herself to be Orthodox but felt embraced by the community there.

Mitlas grew up in a “very loving, Jewish traditional household” that valued Judaism—so much so that when her teenage brother did not seem connected to his Jewish roots, their parents sent him on a 6- week Gratz College program to Israel to rediscover them. “He came back with a kippah on his head and hasn’t taken it off since!” she said.

Her brother’s trip to Israel had an enormous impact on Sally, who was then 12. “That’s what started my passion for Israel and Judaism,” said Mitlas, who describes herself as “an ardent Zionist.” The souvenirs he brought back for her—a record album he got from El Al Airlines featuring a famous recording of Shuli Natan singing “Jerusalem of Gold,” and a micrography poster— also changed her life.

The poster inspired Sally to learn micrography. She quickly became accomplished at doing artistic designs using tiny Hebrew letters, and went to Israel for the first time after winning a free trip there with a micrography competition.

Shuli Natan’s recording inspired Sally to want to learn guitar and sing. She got a guitar and six months of guitar lessons for her Bat Mitzvah, and Sally’s mother, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, taught Sally the songs she knew. “My mother taught me all the Yiddish folk songs. While everyone else was listening to the BeeGees, I was listening to Theodore Bikel!”

Mitlas began performing, eventually getting hired to perform at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Ultimately she opened her own entertainment company and hired other musicians to work with her. When making videos of these events became popular, she first subcontracted with videographers but then learned to create her own event videos.

“A Hero in Heaven” was her first documentary video. “One day I heard a local boy was killed while serving in the IDF in the second Lebanon War,” Mitlas recalled. After doing some research on the boy, “I realized his mother worked across the hall from me. I didn’t know her name, but we would say hello.” Moved by the boy’s story, Mitlas attended his memorial service. She then approached the family about making a documentary about their son, and they agreed. Since then, she said, “It has been shown every Memorial Day in Israel. It was a tremendous honor. The film has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for lone soldiers in the IDF whose families live outside of Israel.”

After that, Mitlas went on to create films for the Israeli Consulate, Israel Bonds, philanthropists, and more.

“One thing led to another. This has been my life. I’m artsy—I’m into the arts. I’m able to tell stories through film, and I’m able to create happiness through music.”

She is also able to bring Jewish tradition to life in a meaningful and joyous way at simchas and other events. In addition to offering musical entertainment for events, her company also specializes in doing an “authentic Havdalah” and horas that are “long, delicious, meaningful, spiritual and authentic.” Klezidelphia, the Klezmer band that performed at the Community Purim Party, is also a unique offering of Mitlas Productions. On Simchat Torah, she noted, a Philadelphia synagogue hired Klezidelphia to wander up and down Broad Street playing traditional Jewish music.

The Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties may be drawing on Mitlas’ creativity yet again in creating a combined Yom Hazikaron commemoration and Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) celebration that will take place on May 1. However, exact plans for the event have yet to be determined, said Federation Executive Director Kirk Wisemayer.

Notably, Mitlas will not be calling Margate home for much longer. A change in her business now requires her to spend more time in the Philly area, and the commute is just too long. But she still plans to stay connected to our local community. “I’m still a member of Young Israel, and I’m still going to be involved,” said Mitlas. 

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