Maya Jankelowitz, co-owner of Jack’s Wife Freda with husband Dean, is on first name basis with almost every diner in the restaurant—saying hello and goodbye to all who pass through. It’s a testament to both the environment she’s created and her approach to life. She tells me how in a recent interview when asked how she kept things together, she had to insist “but I don’t keep things together at all!”. Maybe a better question would have been how you achieve grace under fire, which is exactly what Maya does, and is the reason why everyone around her feels at home.
“We opened Jack’s Wife Freda in January 2011, and it’s been like one long day ever since. Dean and I met at Balthazar where I’d worked for 14 years—we knew we wanted more and needed to work harder to get there. It wasn’t easy. It took 5 years of being scared, looking at spaces and just letting the idea simmer. When we opened I’d just had my second baby. We couldn’t afford a babysitter, so for the first few months I was literally bussing tables with a 6 month old baby strapped to me. I know everyone says this, but being a mother is really a full time job. I was at home for 2 ½ years with my first, and I really needed that time to learn what being a mother meant to me.
Having a child is not a project you tick off the list, it’s a full learning experience.
There’s a huge amount of pressure to be a certain kind of parent, and it took me a while to listen and trust myself to do what felt right. I think it’s easier to be a working mother with a life outside of your kids—being in your in your children’s world all day is harder. It’s a nice balance to be at the restaurant and miss the kids, and be with the kids and miss the restaurant. Dean and I take real pride in considering ourselves full-time workers, parents and business owners. We only have a baby-sitter 10 hours total a week.
As scary as it was, having children taught me what I already knew deep down inside, but was searching for throughout my 20s.
During those years I would sit in my tiny apartment on 7th street, crying and drinking wine, thinking I was depressed, but somewhere deep down I knew it was all part of the process. My children have given me such inner peace, a sense of truth and the realest kind of love. They’ve taught me so much about life which translates in our business.
Honesty is really important to us. Treating everyone who comes in like they’re part of the family and making sure people feel like they can be themselves. We try to spread that sense of acceptance and everyone feels it. Dean and I are careful not to take anything for granted. I’m always scared to say I’m proud of something, because tomorrow is a new day.
If anything, the better we do the harder we work to sustain that.
You have to learn to live with that feeling of holding your breath, which is still a struggle for me. I still ask Dean, when are we getting a weekend? Even if you’re not a business owner, I think it’s good to be really committed to something. I know the waiters who work with us all have other ambitions, but if you can be your best while you’re waiting tables, you’re going to be fine in whatever you do. Dean and I started out by washing dishes—we came here as poor immigrants with nothing. Looking back on everything that happened slowly because we stayed true to our dream is pretty amazing. We look back at photos of us smoking on Crosby Street and think wow, so much has changed. We’ve had some really difficult times, literally shouting into the street asking why things were so hard. But you have to hang in there and keep that faith. You have to believe it will all turn out OK.”
As told to Amy Woodside, May 2014
Photography by Amy Woodside