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September 30, 2010 By:
Buten's Brush With History
She saw it all.
And when you're 111, that's a wealth of history. Fannie Forman Buten, believed to be the oldest Jewish person in the world, died on Sept. 24.
Before her death, which was brought on by a stroke, the Bala Cynwyd resident was listed as the "oldest living" Jewish person "whose age had been verified," according to Robert Young of the Gerontology Research Group.
Buten, who was also accorded the distinction of being the oldest person in Pennsylvania and 37th oldest in the world, was a living history book, said her son-in-law, S. Ty Steinberg.
One of five daughters and the wife of the late Mottie Buten of the prominent paint-store family, Buten etched her way into the record books, living long enough to see the invention of "the telephone, television, two World Wars, flight, automobiles and the wonder of cell phones," said Steinberg.
A graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls who entered the workforce as a secretary, Buten was active throughout her long life, along with her husband, in Jewish concerns, according to family members.
Mottie and Fannie Buten in the late 1950s
A member at the time of her death of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, she was also a past member of Har Zion Temple, Green Valley Country Club and the erstwhile Locust Club.
By all accounts, she wore her age-old distinction well. Young said she was "likely the world's oldest Jewish person since the death of Rosa Rein of Switzerland, 112, on Feb. 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 during her relatively youthful 70s on the greens of the Green Valley Country Club.
She was also involved in many charitable endeavors, including working at the now-defunct Elder Craftsmen in Center City.
Certainly, 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," she told family members.
'Resilience and Stoicism'
Fannie Buten was born in Austria in 1899 -- and according to the manifest at Ellis Island, arrived in the United States at the age of 2. According to her son-in-law, however, there is no birth record.
Indeed, that presented a problem when Buten applied for a passport to visit Israel decades ago. But that didn't stop her. She eventually sought the help of a Pennsylvania state senator, cutting 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 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 apparently a favorite family tradition.
Her greatest joy, said the Steinbergs, was her family, including Marcia Picus, her late daughter, and Herbert T. 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," said Ty Steinberg.
The only drawback in highlighting her historic age at the time of her death is that it would have probably angered her mother, said Marjorie Steinberg.
After all, she said of her mom, who was buried in private graveside services on Sept. 26: "She always lied about her age, so this probably wouldn't please her."