Slouchers and slackers beware: A new breed ofIsraeli professionals has emerged — the workaholic

JERUSALEM — Here's an Israeli joke you won't hear anymore:

Moshik and Kobi decide to try their luck in New York and, on their first day in town, are strolling down Fifth Avenue.

"They say in America all you have to do is bend down and pick the money up off the sidewalks," says Moshik.

"That's right," says Kobi. Walking along they see a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk.

"Just like they said," remarks Moshik.

"See what I mean?" says Kobi, and, without breaking stride, they leave the bill where it is and continue on their leisurely walk.

Two blocks later, Moshik turns to Kobi.

"You think maybe we should have picked up that hundred dollar bill?" he asks.

"Nah," replies Kobi. "It's our first day in America. We'll start work tomorrow."

With apologies, that was a classic from the 1970s and '80s, when the stereotypical Israeli worker was a lazy time-killer, somebody who wanted to get rich without lifting a finger.

That was the stuff jokes were made of before capitalism fell upon Israel in the 1990s, before the high-tech sector became the glamour boy of the Israeli economy.

Now, at the Internet, electronics, and fiber-optics companies in north Tel Aviv, Haifa, Herzliya and elsewhere, Israelis are tapping away at their keyboards through the night.

"One of the things you'll notice about the office buildings in these high-tech parks is that they're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We're looking for an office building now, and unlimited access is one of our conditions," said Victor, a businessman involved in a high-tech startup who works as many as 80 hours a week, yet does not consider himself a workaholic.

"Most workaholics deny that they're workaholics," notes Professor Hillel Ruskin, chairman of the Hebrew University's Cosell Center for Physical Education, Leisure and Health Promotion.

One of the challenges in writing an article about workaholics is pinning them down for an interview, even by telephone.

An interview with Rina, owner of a design company, took place when she was able to find some time for herself — a little after 10 p.m.

Also in her 40s, Rina tries to get home from the office by 8 p.m., bathes her two children, puts them to bed and then attends to the paperwork and phone calls that can keep her going into the middle of the night.

Unlike Victor, who thinks his long hours on the job are a perfectly healthy thing that has no ill effect on his personal or family life, Rina says she is burned out.

Unlike most Israeli go-getters, who tend to congregate not only in high-tech but in all fields of business, as well as law and communications, Ruskin believes that there is such a thing as workaholism and that it's often damaging to individuals and their families.

"They'll say they work such long hours not because they like to, but because their work demands it, but this is usually not so," Ruskin maintains. "They could do the same work in less time if they wanted to, but they feel happy working, whether at the office or at home on the phone."

Ruskin also doesn't think that Israeli workaholism began in the 1990s, but rather has been with us roughly since the Israelites were slaving away for Pharaoh.

"The 'Protestant work ethic' is really the 'Jewish work ethic,'" he said. "Zionism was founded on the value of labor: agricultural and industrial. The generation of founders, and really, the whole world in the early decades of the century, worked from sunrise to sunset. The stereotype of the lazy Israeli worker was based on the Histadrut clerk who sat around drinking tea, but it didn't hold for the farmers or factory workers, or for the factory owners."

Though Rina's business is swallowing her up, she still admits that she likes it.

"It gives me confidence, energy. The truth is that I don't feel like I'm working long hours because it doesn't tire me out. I enjoy the work I do. I know a lot of women like this, who say that starting their own career, or their own business, was a matter of fulfilling their lifelong dream."

At the start of her career, Rina didn't work so hard, and when her kids were born she cut down considerably. But then she grew frustrated with staying at home all the time, being a wife and mother and not much else, so when her second child was out of infancy, Rina started building up her business.

What she'd like to do is find some way of integrating career and family life, so that one doesn't have to come at the expense of the other.

Victor, for his part, doesn't see what all the concern is about.

"This is the fast track, and anybody who wants to get on, can get on. He just has to be aware of the rules of the game. If I hire somebody, I tell him, 'If you have personal business, go do it. Don't come back to me and tell me that your work life is screwing up your family life.'

"My guess is that somebody who's working long hours and has a lousy personal life would probably have a lousy personal life even if he was working normal hours."

Victor spent the first decade of his working life on salary, and during those years was working more or less a 40-hour week. In the last dozen or so years, though, since he's been on his own, he finds it hard to keep track of his time.

"What is my workday? Formally? … There is no formal workday. You work when there are things to do, and when they're finished, your work is finished — and not before.

"Sometimes my day starts at 10 a.m., and sometimes it starts at 5 a.m.," he continues. On this day, a Friday, he notes, "I worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which for me is abnormal. Yesterday I worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., the day before from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m."

The Israeli workaholic, such as Victor, models himself after the American brand, says Ruskin. But there are differences.

"Americans may work all hours of the day and night, but they also go jogging or do some other activity in between. When they go on vacation they're active in sports, or hiking — they move around. Israeli workaholics tend to be sedentary both at work and at leisure. On vacation they head for the pool and lie there."

In the Israelis' favor, though, it could be said that they at least know how to "veg out" when they're not working, whereas American workaholics tend to be just as obsessed with activity during their breaks and on vacation as they are on the job.

Victor still sees Israel's work culture as less stressful than Silicon Valley's, though.

"In Silicon Valley it's a loony bin. They just go and go and go without stopping. Some of the companies have his-and-hers showers on every floor, and you might think that's a nice perk, but the reason the showers are there is because the company doesn't want you to go home," Victor notes.

To Rina, the Israeli style of workaholism "is like everything else here — there's more showing off, it's rawer, more extreme…

"The most blatant symptom, of course, of the stereotypical Israeli workaholic is the fetish he's made out of his cellular phone. This has become a sickness with Israelis."

Yet Rina always keeps her cell phone on; her clients call anytime they want, and she always answers.

"I don't feel comfortable telling clients that I can't be with them, that I can't pay attention to their account now. I feel guilty. I feel guilty when I'm working and guilty when I'm not working. Did I say I was burned out?" she says, laughing.

While Rina complains about work invading her personal life and about wanting to find a way to create a natural "continuum" between the two, Victor says he's found it, and that most other 80-hour-a-week men and women he knows have found it, too.

Essentially, the term "workaholism" is a misnomer, he maintains. These are just hard-working people who enjoy their work, get a lot of satisfaction from it, plus a lot of money, recognition, and status — and if their personal or family lives suffer, then the blame lies with those personalities, not with the hours spent working.

"It's a gestalt — there is no work life and personal life. If you like your work, then everything meshes," Victor insists. "For many years there's been this idea that people work and work and work, until they don't have any personal life left, and then they're supposed to 'get a life' — you know the expression, 'get a life.'

"But they're wrong. It's not that work interferes with your life — work is your life."