Long ago, I had a boss who worked long hours. Commendable yes, but all too frequently and loudly he bragged of his Protestant work ethic. Each time he pointedly looked at Jewish me, also working long hours. It felt uncomfortable, but I just smiled. I knew from hard work and hard workers.
I grew up surrounded by people who toiled non-stop, and I had graduated from college at age 20 while holding three jobs.
My Jewish papa, an electrician, was a workaholic. He went out on emergency service calls at all hours of the night in all kinds of weather.
My oldest brother, an attorney, was also a workaholic. In the days before laptop computers, he schlepped home hefty briefcases full of legal files and notebooks, preparing for trial logging long hours, representing clients to the best of his ability, in the process earning a reputation as one of the 10 best trial lawyers in the country.
I vowed — watching my father swallow nitroglycerine tablets for the heart condition that eventually took his life at 72 — that I would not marry a workaholic.
Yet, years later, that’s exactly what I did. My husband turned out to be as much of a workaholic as my father and brother.
As for the Protestant ethic, it is the value attached to hard work and thrift. It stems from a Calvinist view tied to the notion of eternal salvation. The specific term, a “Protestant work ethic,” was coined by the German sociologist Max Weber in the early 20th century to describe the northern European culture that gave rise to capitalism.
The concept has few parallels with Jewish tradition. There’s no commandment to work — though there is a commandment to rest on the Sabbath. In fact, in Genesis, Adam’s punishment for eating the apple is that he must work from that day that forward. “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”
Yet, while man must work, the ancient rabbis worried that excessive business dealings would distract from religious studies.
Hillel cautioned that one who is too engaged with business cannot become wise, while Rabban Gamliel stressed that a balance was needed between Torah study and work.
And what comes after work? Well, in my family, there’s no “after.” Retirement is just not in our DNA! Both my father and brother worked until the day they died, and it wasn’t like they were in good health. They weren’t. They just liked working.
They reveled in the daily interaction with people. The challenge. And most of all, the sense of purpose and accomplishment.
At this point, I must confess, I too work non-stop. So, this workaholic trait is not gender specific.
My mother never stopped going either, although her labors were largely unpaid. Like many women of her time, she married early and stayed home to care for her family. Upon my father’s death and after five decades of marriage, she earned her GED and started college at age 68.
Her plans to become a legal aide were derailed by health problems but that didn’t derail her completely.
She became a vibrant leader of a nonprofit organization that assisted the mentally handicapped.
For her efforts, she was recognized as “Mother of the Year” in the newspaper. You should have seen the pride on her face when she received the phone call telling her the news.
Protestants may have their work ethic, but we Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and people of so many other faiths and creeds are also hard workers. Take that, smug boss of so many years ago! Workaholics of the world unite!
Also, take a break now and then. It couldn’t hurt, you know.