Nevena “Na’ava” Tsahàla Velkoff, 24, is “proudly Jewish, trans, and queer, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, Velkoff is an educator. In 2018, they worked with MASA Israel Teaching Fellows to teach English in Haifa. Now, Velkoff works for Baltimore City Public Schools as a first grade paraeducator, supporting the head teacher and teaching phonics and social emotional learning lessons.
This interview has been condensed.
How has your job changed because of the coronavirus?
Under COVID-19 life, the switch has been dramatic.
I attend a live session every morning of the weekdays to support the teacher on a digital platform and share videos and visuals while she teaches. I call or text parents who are unable to connect virtually to discuss the state of their children, as well as the alternative distance learning tactics. I attend weekly staff meetings and academic planning virtually to keep up to date and to know best [classroom] practice.
What kind of music and cooking do you like to do in your free time?
I write soul R&B. My music is not published yet but my poetry can be found on Instagram (@naavatsahala). I cook all sorts of things. I try to be vegan as best as I can. That doesn’t always work, and I do sometimes eat meat, but on very rare occasions. All the meats are my weakness. A good roasted chicken, I really like.
I cook mostly Mediterranean dishes, from Spain, through Macedonia to Israel and Morocco and Egypt. Anything on the Mediterranean is my favorite branch of cooking. My shakshuka is to die for.
I also love to spend time with my friends and family. I love nature and taking time to enjoy life.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you?
I would not say I am a religious Jew, but a proudly ethnic one. I am Sephardic and Ashkenazi mixed and have interesting histories in regards to my Jewish lineage. I love the rituals of Judaism and practice them — Shabbat, holidays, fasting — with joy. I do not study Torah — I see it as our history book as a people, more than a religious work — and I do not often attend temple. I still keep Shabbat and other Jewish traditions because they just feel right.
I love Jewish mysticism. I really connect to my Jewishness through music, specifically music in Ladino, Yiddish, or Hebrew. That makes my heart soar.
Can you share more about your experience as a Jewish member of the LGBTQ+ community?
As a queer Jewish woman, life has been challenging to navigate with two large targets on my back. I face anti-Semitism in my daily life and have been dealing with it since I was young. I face discrimination in the Jewish community often for being queer.
In the many times I lived in [Haifa and Jerusalem], I found many of the Orthodox rejected my validity as a Jew, claiming my queerness invalidated it. It was tragic and heartbreaking.
I think I am really beautiful and pretty and I feel that I pass, but I feel misgendered a lot in public … Now that we have to wear face masks I’m actually happy [because my strong facial structure is hidden]. Also my voice, a lot of people call a man’s voice, which is unfortunate because I’ve affected my voice as much as I can. But regardless of if I had a deep or high voice, it would still be a woman’s voice because I’m a woman.
At the same time, I have built some of my strongest and most important relationships with fellow queer Jews, especially in Israel where I was part of a queer trans Jewish support group.
I wish people could understand that my gender identity and sexuality do not make me a good or bad person, they are just facets of my life, as they are with everyone.
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