Not Your Typical Jewish Family

By Johanna Karasik


ThanksgivingFriday, November 29 of last year was proclaimed to be ShaTHanukkah. Well, at least in my father’s house. In a divorced family, holidays are always crazy–trying to figure out when the kids will go where. For many years, my younger brother and I would celebrate two Thanksgivings in one day–lunch at Mom’s and dinner at Dad’s. Then one year someone got smart and my dad offered to just move his Thanksgiving to Friday.

This year, Friday was not only Thanksgiving Part II, but also the first night of Hanukkah. Although Judaism is at least partially coursing through my father’s side of the family, we’ve never celebrated Hanukkah beyond the obligatory party with my grandfather’s Humanistic group, and I don’t recall ever celebrating Shabbat, the Sabbath, with my immediate family or my grandfather. So I was pretty surprised when I received an email from my father saying that they would be honored if I would lead the lighting of the Hanukkah and Shabbat candles. Actually, completely shocked is more like it, considering my dad labels himself as a half-Jew and does not feel any attachment or spirituality towards Judaism. I was absolutely kvelling when I showed my dad’s email to my best friend. She completely understood and kvelled with me.

My family put Shabbat, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah together…and ShaTHanukkah was born. Upon request, I cooked up some homemade chicken matzah ball soup, which turned out to be the only home-cooked dish of the meal. I guess Dad wasn’t up to cooking this year, buying everything pre-made. It was a small group–my father, stepmother, older stepbrother, younger brother, kid half-sister, and grandparents who have been divorced since before I was born and were also an interfaith couple. My brother David actually asked to light the Hanukkah candles, even though he had no idea how to do it–which was another surprise, leading to more kvelling.

I said the blessings, with my dad reading them with me and everyone else at least present. It was awkward to be the only one who knew exactly what was going on, being surrounded by people who were fairly clueless to the Hanukkah and Shabbat rituals. But they asked questions, at least acted interested, and loved the soup. (I do make awesome soup.) After dinner, we traded presents (an event that occurred only because our parents would be in China on Christmas) and then played dreidel, using the gelt my grandfather had brought. I had family, matzah ball soup, and candles. It definitely was ShaTHanukkah–and a good one at that.

I don’t come from a typical Jewish family–whatever that is. But I have an extended family that includes nearly every religion: Catholicism, Judaism, atheism, Mormonism, even polytheism. Every individual brings his or her own light into the world. We each have our own take, our own beliefs, our own story. Within our communities, we learn and teach each other. My father’s request for me to lead his crazy new holiday was his expression of support in my own Jewish journey, and I love him for that. This world has room for all walks, all types, all religions… and my family is no different.


About Johanna Karasik

Johanna Karasik is the program director of BCI (Brandeis Collegiate Institute) in Calif. Previously, she spent four years working for Hillel in engagement and programming. Johanna received a bachelor's in psychology from Colo. State University, and has written articles for and She welcomes emails at