Fannie Buten, world’s oldest Jew, dies at 111

She was stoic, resilient, baked great cakes and lied about her age

Fannie 311 (photo credit: JTA)
Fannie 311
(photo credit: JTA)
She saw it all. And when you are 111, that’s a wealth of history.
Fannie Forman Buten, believed to be the oldest Jewish person in the world, died on September 24 and was buried two days later in a private graveside service.
Before her death, which was brought on by a stroke, the suburban Philadelphia resident was listed as the “oldest living” Jewish person “whose age had been verified,” according to Robert Young of the Gerontology Research Group. Buten, also the oldest person in Pennsylvania and 37th oldest in the world, was a living history book, said her son-in-law, S. Ty Steinberg. He noted that she witnessed the invention of the telephone, television, flight, automobiles and “the wonder of cellphones,” as well as lived through two world wars.
One of five daughters, Buten was a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls who entered the workforce as a secretary.
She was active throughout her life in Jewish concerns, according to family members. Her husband, the late Mottie Buten of the prominent paintstore family, joined her in these endeavors.
Buten at the time of her death was a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and was a past member of Har Zion Temple, Green Valley Country Club and the erstwhile Locust Club.
Among her many charitable endeavors, she worked at the now-defunct Elder Craftsmen, which provided local elderly artisans a sales outlet for handmade goods, in Philadelphia.
Charity begins at home, she taught, but she also viewed the world as her homefront.
“It is easy to give money, but the most important thing is to give of one’s self,” Buten, of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, told family members.
By all accounts she wore the age distinction well. Young said Buten was “likely the world’s oldest Jewish person since the death of Rosa Rein of Switzerland, 112, on February 14, 2010.”
The number one seemed to be a seminal figure in her life. Not only was she No. 1 on the Jewish gerontology list at age 111, she scored a hole-in-one in her 70s on the greens of the Green Valley Country Club.
Buten was born in Austria in 1899 – according to the manifest at Ellis Island, she arrived in the United States at the age of two. Steinberg, however, says there is no birth record.
That presented a problem when Buten applied for a passport to visit Israel decades ago, but eventually she sought the help of a Pennsylvania state senator to cut through the red tape.
The incident was in keeping with the characteristics described by Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom of Adath Jeshurun as a woman filled with “immense resilience and stoicism.” And one with a sense of humor.
“She was so well-known for her milk sponge cakes with coconut,” said her daughter, Marjorie Steinberg. “And when you’d go to blow out the candles, the coconut she sprinkled on top would be all over the place.” Apparently it was a favorite family tradition.
Her greatest joy, the Steinbergs said, was her family, including Marcia Picus, her late daughter, and Herbert Picus, a surviving son-in-law.
“The growth of her family was of the utmost importance to her, and she loved cooking the favorite dishes for her surviving 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren,” Ty Steinberg said.
Highlighting her historic age upon her passing probably would have angered her mother, said Marjorie Steinberg.
“She always lied about her age,” Steinberg said, “so this probably wouldn’t please her.”
(Jewish Exponent/JTA)