Recollections of Growing Up in Aiken

By: Sondra Shanker Katzenstein

Above: Isadore Efron’s garage, Aiken, SC. Courtesy of Anne Thomasson.

My parents, Minnie and Sam Shanker, both were born in St. Louis, Missouri, and in the mid-1930s came to Aiken where my grandparents Jake and Helen Efron had a grocery store. My parents opened their own grocery store and worked long hours seven days a week. They closed the store for church hours on Sunday—the only day we, as a family, ate our midday meal together. We had a “colored” lady who took care of me and my two younger brothers during the day, and her mother stayed with us until my parents came home from the store at night. May and then Ethel walked to our home early in the morning to cook our breakfast and got us up for school. Mother usually drove us to school. Then she would go to the store to help my father.

The small neighborhood store was in a predominantly black area on Highway 1. Customers who lived in the housing developments nearby would stop to shop and often buy their groceries for the week. There were few supermarkets as we know of today. Our shop sold gasoline and kerosene as well as foodstuffs.

I often helped out working as a cashier or putting away merchandise. The store  was not air conditioned but was cooled with fans on the ceilings. We had very nice black customers to whom my parents extended credit when needed. We were taught at an early age that they were our “bread and butter.” I never ever thought of them as anything other than people with a different color skin. In fact, I saw May or Ethel more than I did my own mother.


Right: Isadore Efron.  Esther Persky albums. Special Collections, College of Charleston.

I can remember having some of the little black children come to our home to play school in the mornings. (Oddly, I never considered becoming a teacher, even though I thought this was a worthwhile thing to do.) I remember seeing the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street in front of my grandparents’ grocery store on Park Avenue. My mother explained to me that they not only hated blacks but hated Jews as well. When I was going to Aiken Elementary School, not far from where I lived, I was chased home one day by some boys a little older than I was. They were yelling at me: “You killed Jesus!” I was so afraid and cried back, “I wasn’t even around then.” After that incident, my mother picked me up from school.

Another unpleasant encounter occurred when I was handing out samples of Sealtest cottage cheese at one of the grocery stores. A customer said to me, “You act just like a Jew.” I had enough chutzpah to say back to her, “That is funny—I am Jewish and I’m proud of it!” Those were the only two episodes of anti-Semitism I can remember.

All of my friends were Christians and often invited me to help decorate their Christmas tree or come to their eggnog party or go with them to midnight mass at the Catholic church. I remember spending the night with a friend on Easter eve so the Easter bunny could give me a basket. I am sure that my mother helped my friend’s mother with the goodies.

When my parents sent me to Camp Tel Yehuda one summer, I didn’t like it at first. I felt that I had been dropped in the middle of Israel! Everything was said in Hebrew. At meal time, we had to remember the words for the food to get served. We had to work in the garden, etc. We had Hebrew every day but Shabbat. At the beginning of the month’s stay I knew nothing, but I certainly learned a lot. Most of the campers were not from the South.

The next year, I went to Camp Blue Star and LOVED it! I didn’t want to come home. My parents borrowed the money to keep me there for two months. They knew that I had a boyfriend in Aiken and they were keeping me away from him.

I feel that I got most of my Jewish education from camp. Going to synagogue in Aiken was not a good experience. Not having had any Hebrew, women sitting on one side and men on the other side, with virtually no English in the service, was really boring. Girls were not taught Hebrew then. Only my brothers studied with Mr. Nathan Persky for their bar mitzvah.


Left: Marriage of Sondra Shanker and Charles Katzenstein, February 1, 1959, conducted by Rabbi Norman Goldberg. Courtesy of Sondra S. Katzenstein.

My cousin Rahlene Rifkin Linder and I were made to go to Augusta to the Young Judaea group. We did not feel accepted there. A few times we went to the conventions. To me, it was my camping experiences that gave me a good feeling about being Jewish.

I attended the University of Georgia for one year. The school was way too big for me. I did pledge SDT and joined the sorority. The boys at Georgia were party animals. This was not the scene for me.

I met my husband  on a blind date. He was at the navy supply school in Athens when I was a freshman. The date was arranged by a customer and friend of my parents. He was the Episcopal minister in Aiken who shopped at my parents’ grocery store. His wife was a physical therapist. She asked me to help her teach adaptive swimming to handicapped children one summer.

Many years later, I went back to school at Central Piedmont Community College to become a physical therapist assistant. I had three different children in three different schools then and I was going to college in Charlotte. I am really proud to say that all three of my children have had their bar or bat mitzvah and all four grandchildren have too.

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