Sunny Levi


Sunny Levi is one of ten certified female seventh-degree black belts in the country. In addition to being a Taekwondo master and an elite athlete who was once on a path to the Olympics, she was also a professional actress, appearing in numerous commercials and films and aspiring to work her way up to what she thought was “the top,” becoming a Hollywood star. Then Sunny made some major turns in her life. She is now a mother of six, fitness trainer, self-defense and yoga instructor, and emunah life coach who is passionate about eating clean, the outdoors, and being best friends with G-d. Her daughter, Eden, at age 17, wrote and published a book on emunah for teens, and her husband, Daniel, a former Reform Jew gone Buddhist, meditating in the ashrams of Thailand, is now a psychotherapist who spends his Rosh Hashanahs in Uman. Sunny shares her interesting and inspiring story with us about her past, her life lessons, and how this all came to be.

Well, to understand me better we need to put some things in context. Let’s go back in time to 1968 when my story began.  

Picture the scene: a cold day in January at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The lobby outside the Pier Room was packed with students, some brandishing signs, some shouting demands to end U.S. Marine Corps recruitment on campus. The university police surrounded the protesters. Amid the sea of faces opposed to America’s war in Vietnam, two protesters laid eyes on each other. 

The guy, a few years older, oddly enough in a suit and tie, and an adorable economics major, trendy for the era in her tights and mini dress.

The grad student approached her, flashing a bold smile and asked, “Are you a demonstrator?”

To which she responded, teasing the suit get-up, “Are you a narc?”

He liked what he heard and asked her out, and the rest is history. Mine.

It was instant fireworks for my parents. Love at first sight. 

And exactly one week later, Beverly Kolodny and Gary Siegel—socialists, sometimes-Marxists, often radicals, counter-cultural hippie activists, liberals—were engaged to be married. 

Now keep in mind that despite their quick engagement this was not shidduch dating, nor were they necessarily looking to marry within their faith, nor were they even looking to get married!  It was purely coincidence, fate, the hand of G-d, or whatever you call it when things just work out.

And after a few happy years of marriage, Bev and Gary jubilantly welcomed their first child to the world—Adam Montag (or as we call him, Moon-tag!).

All was groovy for the new family of three. Adam was born in Champaign-Urbana, main campus of University of Illinois, where Bev and Gary went for grad school. My mom went into a master’s program in journalism, and my dad, having abandoned a graduate program in accounting, switched into PhD studies in sociology, both all the better to change the world. 

Then a little while later my mom got pregnant again. 

This time, however, they were in for the shock of their lives. 

Because upon meeting their second child, Josh, they discovered that things were not right with him. 

Like, really not right.

How not right?

Well, for one thing, he had a strange condition going on in his eyes that the doctors couldn’t identify. His retinas were deteriorating. He was a baby going blind, and no one knew what else to expect. 

Now let’s just pause for a moment and try to imagine this: Two young, carefree, hippie spirits, loving up their son, building up their careers, thrilled to welcome another baby to their clan, and then, all of a sudden, like a storm of cement bricks raining down from the top of a ten-story building on an otherwise totally clear and sunny day, baby number two pops out like a wrecking ball. And instead of the expected smiles, hugs, and congratulations, they got a bevy of urgently concerned doctors and specialists poking, prodding, and unanimously announcing that their child was super messed up, and that basically...he never would be okay.  

Oh, and he might very well have eye cancer too.

I shudder to imagine how difficult this was for my parents.

And just like that, moments after he was born, the doctors whisked the baby off for spinal taps, investigations, endless eye exams, and conferencing.

Meanwhile, nervous relatives waited in confusion, fear, and dread. 

Eventually my mom discovered that she carried a rare gene for “Norrie’s.”

What is Norrie’s, you ask?

It’s a genetic condition, passed through the female and affecting only males, which strikes with a combination of blindness with either deafness and/or mental retardation. 

My mom’s mom didn’t really mention this little genetic hiccup to her daughter because she was told by her obstetrician not to worry, and that whatever gene had affected her two brothers had certainly ended with her.

Say what? What two brothers? By now you must be a little confused…

Well, it turns out my grandmother had two brothers. My mom knew the younger one, Uncle Frankie. He was blind and deaf. But she didn’t know anything about her other uncle. Her mom didn’t speak of him much except for in strange code when discussing the Holocuast. “I was lucky to get out when I was little,” was her usual comment. “My brother wasn’t.”

Turns out, as was discovered some 35 years later in the labor and recovery unit of the hospital, my grandmother had an older brother who was among the first to be murdered by the Nazis, not just because he was Jewish, but because he was blind and deaf as well. 

And here it was being unearthed on account of my mom’s second son in the most disturbing and shocking way: The Norrie gene was alive and well. And Josh was its next-generation victim. Just like my grandmother’s older brother, Josh was struck with blindness and what they would later discover was severe mental retardation.

But despite Josh’s grim diagnosis, my parents were not the type to sit back and accept his condition without trying everything out there first. They took him to the top pediatric specialists. 

And despite all the doctors’ opinions that nothing could be done, my dad wouldn’t take no for an answer. He continued to research, read, and explore every option out there, until one day he came across an article about a Christian faith healer—a reverend, in the Chicago area, no less—who had a reputation for healing those deemed hopeless by doctors.  

My dad immediately called this supposed miracle worker—whom Time Magazine had credited with healing a girl of exactly the eye cancer the doctors said Josh had—and made an appointment.

When my parents got to his house in Homewood, Illinois, the first thing they noticed was the cross around his neck, with a very unusual piece of what appeared to be Judaica beside it. They were standing eye to eye with a minister in the Pyramid of Light Christian Esoteric Church, a scientist with many patents to his credit, and a student of what he called “Christian Kabbalah,” the Jewish mystical tradition.

“Is that a mezuzah?” asked my father, referring to the thin rectangular thing next to the cross around his neck.

Surprised by his question, the minister answered in the affirmative and asked, “How do you know what a mezuzah is? Are you Jewish?”

Sheepishly, my parents shook their heads yes.

And that’s when things really got interesting!

“You Jews had the best magic, but you threw it out,” he told them. “Ask the average Jew on the street a question about Judaism, and they don’t know anything.” With passion in his eyes, he spoke about how wonderful their holy books were, and that it was from the Jewish Kabbalah and Torah that he had learned so much about healing and energy work. 

They visited the healer for two years. He never healed my brother of blindness, but he certainly opened my parents’ eyes to exploring the beauty of their own religion. His interpretations of familiar Bible stories, to their astonishment, were inspiring, and they suddenly made sense. 

Until they didn’t...

Until he said that the Jews were never slaves in Egypt, and that Passover was based on a faulty understanding of a metaphor, that it had never really happened. 

My parents decided to seek other answers.

(To be continued…)

Sunny Levi

Sunny Levi is a mother of 6, 7th-degree black-belt Tae Kwon Do master, personal trainer, yoga and self-defense instructor, inspirational speaker, writer, and teacher of personal prayer. In addition to teaching and coaching women and children both in person and online, Sunny also works as a martial arts therapist at Kids Kicking Cancer where she helps children with chronic illness overcome the fear and physical discomfort of their condition and treatment. Sunny is passionate about spreading emunah, eating clean, drinking green, hiking and talking to God.She and her family recently moved from Chicago to Scottsdale, Arizona.You can keep up with her on Instagram at @sunnyblackbelt or Facebook at sunny Ariella levi, or Sunnys Martial arts and fitness.

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