Brownie Ebner turned 100 on Nov. 11. “Why is everybody making such a big deal? If I could take credit for curing cancer or something like that I’d brag about it. What do I have to brag about?” she asked the AJP last month, sitting in her tidy apartment at Atria Campana del Rio Senior Living.
For starters, Ebner, who has lived more than 60 of her 100 years in Tucson, displays a keen intellect, remembers jokes and delivers them adeptly, and still enjoys playing poker and other games. She has always loved reading, but because of macular degeneration, she now listens to audio books.
Ebner doesn’t know why she’s lived so long: “Is it genes? I could have died five times over,” she says. “It’s luck that I’ve lived so long.”
Life — as it always does — has thrown Ebner a few curves. She was born in Providence, R.I., in 1911; her father left the family when she was 3. Ebner’s mother, Rachel, held various jobs but fending for herself and her daughter was not easy.
“When I was young I lived with my maternal grandparents in New York. My grandfather was so busy reading Torah,” says Ebner, “he didn’t pay much attention to me. He was a very observant Jew but not very understanding.”
Her grandmother refused “to cling to the old world. She spoke English very well,” says Ebner. “She had nine children, and instead of getting the Shabbos goy to turn on the stove, she would go to the bedroom. One of the children would turn it on.”
Growing up, Ebner lived with her mother for intervals; she went to 16 different public schools in New York City. “I was a tomboy. I was a good student and I would rather dance than eat,” she says. “School was a haven” but Ebner never attended college, a dream she still talks about. “Nobody told us I could have gotten a scholarship,” she laments.
During her years in New York, “I was exposed to other religions. I ate in Italian people’s homes with statues of Jesus. I mingled with everybody. To this day, I can’t stand prejudice.”
Ebner’s mother worked on Saturdays and “we never kept kosher,” she says. “I was glad I was Jewish. I felt our religion was the most intelligent. Jewish people weren’t nicer people but we were downtrodden. We understood what it was like and were friendlier to other people.”
Ebner married Joseph Harry Ebner on July 31, 1934. They moved to Tucson in 1935 after trying to make a go of it in Boston, his hometown. Her husband worked for the AR-Jay deli owned by Ebner’s Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam Kipnis, who were former New Yorkers.
Kipnis worked with the Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz during prohibition, notes Ebner; his history is chronicled in “What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past” (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) by Nancy K. Miller, who was also Kipnis’ niece. The “Distant Cousins” chapter in “What They Saved” is about Ebner.
After several years in Tucson, when World War II broke out Ebner and her husband moved back to Boston where Joe worked in defense. He soon was reclassified 1A and shipped out to the European front. After the war their first of two children, Michael, was born in Boston in 1946. They moved back to Tucson but were back in Boston when their daughter, Sarah, was born on Jan. 11, 1950. The family moved back to Tucson for good in 1961.
Ebner and her husband were among the earliest members of Congregation Bet Shalom, where Sarah [Frieden] is the administrator/bookkeeper.
Ebner spends a lot of time thinking about her past, she says, and contemplating some of life’s big questions. Having lived through an entire century, she has a unique vantage point. She has a cell phone and has used a computer, but, says Ebner, “it’s too bad children are so involved staring at screens, not outdoors tossing a ball, playing hopscotch. They’re too isolated. They don’t have the emotions we had. They’re disaffected and get callous at an early age.”
As for society at large, “I don’t think anything has changed,” says Ebner. “If you’re Jewish or if you’re in one sect of Christians, like the Baptists, they don’t like other Protestants and vice versa. There are always people who don’t like each other.
“Religion should be personal,” she told the AJP. “Look at how many wars went on in the name of religion, how many people have been persecuted in the name of religion. Not everyone likes the same food but they keep it to themselves. We don’t fight because of the food we eat.”
The Jewish people “have been persecuted for so long there are always some who gain positions of power, who make it, but human nature hasn’t changed,” she affirms. For example, “people used to whisper about things that happened like sexual harassment but these things have always happened.”
As for Ebner’s perspective on the big picture: “From my small microscope I need a God. I need a belief,” she says. “There’s something that makes the spring and summer. I believe there’s a spiritual force but I can’t name it. But I don’t have to make up my mind.”