Worlds oldest Jew dies at 111 Santa Rosa Jewish woman turned 109 in August

Fannie Forman Buten, believed to be the oldest Jewish person in the world, died Sept. 24 at age 111 in Elkins Park, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.

Fannie’s graduation photo from the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

She was buried two days later at a private graveside service.

Before her death, which was brought on by a stroke, Buten was listed as the oldest living Jewish person whose age had been verified, according to Robert Young of the Gerontology Research Group. The group, which tracks “supercentenarians” — people 110 and older — said she was also the oldest person in Pennsylvania and 37th oldest in the world.

Her death left 77 supercentenarians worldwide, 74 women and three men, the group noted.

According to Young, the “new informal world’s oldest Jewish person” is Brooklyn resident Evelyn Kozak, who turned 111 on Aug. 14. Also somewhere in the Top 10, most likely, is Santa Rosa’s Elsie Rich, who celebrated her 109th birthday on Aug. 6.

“David Pur of Israel claims [to be] 115, but that hasn’t been substantiated,” Young stated in an e-mail.

Buten resided in Bala Cynwyd, a Philadelphia suburb, in the years before her death, recently with a home health aide. She 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 cell phones, as well as lived through two world wars.

Fannie Buten on her 111th birthday with her daughter, Marjorie Steinberg.

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 a prominent paint-store family, joined in her in these endeavors.

Fannie met Mottie in 1920. He and his three brothers operated the M. Buten and Sons paint company, a Philadelphia-area chain. The couple married in 1923 and had two daughters, Marjorie Steinberg and Marcia Picus, who died in 1999.

Buten at the time of her death was a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., and was a past member of Har Zion Temple, Green Valley Country Club and Philadelphia’s Locust Club, a once-renowned Jewish social club that used to play host to presidents and other dignitaries.

Among her many charitable endeavors, she worked at the now-defunct Elder Craftsmen, which provided local elderly artisans with a sales outlet for handmade goods, in Philadelphia.

Charity begins at home, she taught, but she also viewed the world as her home front.

“It is easy to give money, but the most important thing is to give of one’s self,” Buten was said to have told family members.

By all accounts, Buten wore her age distinction well. Young said Buten “likely” became the world’s oldest Jew after the Feb. 14 death this year of Rosa Rein of Switzerland, who was 112.

The number one seemed to be a seminal figure in Buten’s life. Not only was she No. 1 on the Jewish gerontology list at age 111, but she also scored a hole-in-one in her 70s at Green Valley Country Club.

Buten was born in Austria in 1899 — according to the manifest at Ellis Island, where she arrived in the United States at the age of 2 with her parents, Louis, a tailor, and Rebecca Forman. Steinberg, however, says there is no birth record (she was born April 13, 1899 according to her immigration papers and Feb. 1, 1899 according to her family, Young noted).

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 keep-ing with how Buten was 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.”

It was a favorite family tradition.

“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.

In an article on about Buten’s death, Marjorie was asked for the keys to her mother’s longevity. She “was not an exerciser,” Marjorie replied. “She never watched her diet. She loved her coffee and her chocolate and ice cream. She was not a heavy woman. She never had to watch her diet.”