Friends laughed when a grateful Italian government, investing Tullia Zevi with high civic honor, named her Knight of the Great Cross.
So what does a nice Jewish lady need with a cross, big or small?
For Zevi, "sailing happily in my 70s," the official accolade is testimony of a job well done. She is leader and polished voice of one of the world's exceptional communities of Jews.
Zevi fled the Fascist rule of Benito Mussolini in the 1930s, played the harp for Leonard Bernstein and Frank Sinatra in New York, became a journalist, then an advocate for her faith in the shambles of postwar Rome.
Today, she is one of Italy's best known public women, completing her fourth term as president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, a small group that casts a disproportionately long shadow in Italian life.
"My job," she says, "is to keep the community united; with itself, and with all Italians. Even when we were closed in ghettos there was a marvelous dynamism, an osmosis between the general population and the Jews (through the centuries).
"Cardinals would come into the ghetto to discuss with the rabbis. Even when we were persecuted and marginalized we never lost touch with the outside society, and at the same time we managed to remain united."
There are 40,000 Jews in Italy today by Zevi's count. About 14,000 live in Rome, and another 10,000 in Milan, and in all there are 21 communities floating in the Roman Catholic Italian sea.
Italian Jews, in fact, could hardly be more Italian or Jewish. Today, the most visible Jewish symbol in Rome is the large, turn-of-the-century synagogue on the Tiber a short stroll from St. Peter's. It has ancestors: In imperial Rome, population around 1 million, historians say there were about 60,000 Jews, and legends speak of 12 synagogues.
Roman Jews say they are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic because they were here before the Diaspora. Rome's Jewish community was thriving when Christ was born--the first historical record is from 162 BC, Zevi says. When St. Paul and St. Peter, the first Pope, came to Rome from the Holy Land, it was to talk with the Jews here.
"We are totally integrated with Italy; the same language, the same customs. But at the same time we have been able to preserve our heritage and sense of self," Zevi says. "The rate of mixed marriages is a bit less than in the United States."
For three centuries beginning in 1555, Popes locked up Rome's Jews at night in a ghetto. The community survived, just as it survived generations of implacable hatred the Catholic church once reserved for Jews as "God killers."
Italy's Jews survived the coming of Mussolini, the racial laws of fascism and the deportation of nearly 9,000 Jews to Nazi prison camps during World War II. Only a few hundred came back.
"A lot of terrible things have happened in 2,000 years, but somehow we have made it. Here we are again. After tragedy, our destiny is as a message of hope," says Zevi at her apartment in the heart of the old ghetto--now reborn as one of the most fashionable of Roman neighborhoods.
When Mussolini proclaimed copied-from-the-Nazis laws against Jews on the eve of World War II, Zevi's father, a prominent Milan lawyer named Giuseppe Calabi, had seen enough. He moved his wife and four children first to Switzerland and later to New York, where conductor Arturo Toscanini, a family friend, had offered help.
Tullia Calabi studied music there at Juilliard, attended Radcliffe and before war's end found herself playing harp for Bernstein with the New York City Symphony. She also played in the orchestra at the Paramount Theater--five shows a day.
Zevi says that she was lucky to have survived the war and felt an obligation to return to Italy and work in the reconstruction of the country. She came back as correspondent for the interdenominational Religious News Service and for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and also began working for the Tel Aviv newspaper Maariv.
Amid the shards of a Jewish community diminished and impoverished by war and pogrom, the educated, articulate, Italian-from-America made an instant impression.
"At the first postwar congress," Zevi remembers, "one important delegate from Venice decided that it was time we Jews had women participating in public life. 'She's a woman, but she understands everything,' he said, 'Vote for Tullia!' "
"But she understands everything" has been Zevi's winning campaign slogan ever since. Married to architect Bruno Zevi and the mother of two children--a son now an architect and a daughter now a professor of art history--Zevi served as a councilor for the Jewish association until she was elected president in 1982.
By now, every newspaper and television in Italy knows where to find Tullia Zevi. In moments of intolerance or social conflict, she speaks in journalist-beloved pithy quotes and polished sound bites, not only for Jews but also for all who swim outside the Italian mainstream.
"Minorities are the first ones to sense danger. They are like a litmus test. Across the centuries we have been the minority par excellence. We are evidence of Italian pluralism and the success of Italian democracy," she says. "Just as we must never be isolated within this country, so must we fight not only for ourselves but also for the rights of people, like new immigrants, who are the weakest part of society."
Italian fascism officially died in 1945 with Mussolini, its founder. Today, the heirs to the movement call themselves post-fascists and have become respectable components of the political spectrum. They have scrupulously eschewed anti-Semitic overtones, but their growing support alarms many moderate Italians. So too the predations of small groups of anti-Semitic skinheads, known here as "Naziskins," against immigrants from North and West Africa. Denounced by every political grouping, their presence is less obvious than in other European countries, but it is troubling to Zevi.
"The phenomenon must be carefully watched. Their heads are shaved but also empty. The danger is that they can be manipulated; they must be controlled," she says.
Zevi fears that bad economic times are coming to Italy and that they will further intensify the attraction of right-wing political movements.
"The danger is different this time. It is not just for Jews, but for the whole country. Fundamentalist winds are blowing everywhere. The right has never brought us good things; neither has the extreme left."
Her current term as community president will be her last, Zevi says, as she asks herself a difficult question: "Should one continue to cultivate one's own garden or, in times of danger, should one offer the experience of a lifetime?"
One of Italy's center-left parties may lure her into a Senate candidacy in national elections later this year; late in life, perhaps, for Tullia Zevi to exchange community leadership for partisan politics. . . . "But she understands everything."