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USC Fisher’s Sota takes the old and makes it new

by Aimee Bennett
The Sota Project uses a Talmudic parable as the springboard for a modern-day retelling of the tale about the deception of two sisters. (Photo/Courtesy of Ofri Cnaani)
Photo: The Sota Project uses a Talmudic parable as the springboard for a modern-day retelling of the tale about the deception of two sisters. (Photo/Courtesy of Ofri Cnaani)

Adultery, jealousy, judgment and betrayal — in just 14 short lines, the Jewish tale of “Sota” has it all. A 2,000-year-old parable involving two trusting sisters and one suspicious husband, “Sota” — Hebrew for “adulteress” or “pervert” — poses intriguing questions of doubt, deception and loyalty.

Accused of infidelity by her husband, a woman is forced to undergo the Sota ritual — an old Jewish practice used to prove whether a woman has committed adultery by having her drink from a fountain of  “bitter water.” If guilty, she will die; if innocent, she will be blessed with fertility. To save both reputation and life, Sota and her sister, Bekhorah, hatch a deceptive plan to swap places.

Using this parable as the foundation for a 22-minute video installation, The Sota Project explores the familial ties among the characters in a modern-day context at the USC Fisher Museum of Art.

The project, which opened on Oct. 7, uses state-of-the-art technology to display video projections on all four walls of the exhibition space and the ceiling while simultaneously drawing from ancient storytelling techniques used in Greco-Roman murals and Renaissance tapestries.

Footage was shot in 2009 with an Israeli cast that included actors Moshe Ivgy and Tali Sharon. Accenting the multimedia project’s mixture of the old with the new, the film places contemporary cars, clothes and swimming pools amid a backdrop of ancient Israeli buildings and dirt roads.

The five-year production is the work of Israeli artist Ofri Cnaani, recipient of the Six Points Fellowship — a two-year, $40,000 grant awarded to artists making Jewish works — and two-time winner of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation award. Cnaani, who works with large-scale installations, often uses contemporary technology to present stories of early Israeli history. She was inspired to start The Sota Project after spending two years studying the Talmudic parable.

Throughout the installation, Cnaani turns this deceptively simple story into a complex and open-ended tale of doubt. By choosing to focus on the relationship between the sisters, Cnaani offers audiences a fresh perspective and challenges the patriarchal connotations of the passage.

As the final scene cuts out before a true conclusion is reached, viewers are left with a sense of ambiguity that calls the idea of a single truth into question and leaves the moral lesson of the parable unresolved.

The Sota Project is on display at the USC Fisher Museum of Art through Dec. 1.