a photo of a pair of calloused, dirty hands
(Photo/U.S. Marine Corps CC0)

Workaholics of the world, unite!

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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 those same long hours. It felt uncomfortable, but I just smiled. I knew from hard work and hard workers. Growing up, I was surrounded by people who toiled nonstop, and in college, I held down three jobs and still managed to graduate at age 20.

My father, Julius, was an electrician and a workaholic. He went out on emergency service calls at all hours of the night in all kinds of weather. My eldest brother, Gil, an attorney, was also a workaholic. In the days before laptop computers, he schlepped home hefty briefcases full of legal files and notebooks, logging long hours prepping for trials, representing clients to the best of his ability, and in the process earning a reputation as one of the 10 best trial lawyers in the country, according to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now the American Association for Justice).

I vowed — watching my father swallow nitroglycerine tablets for the heart condition that eventually took his life at 72 — I would not marry a workaholic.

Yet, years later, that’s exactly what I did, wedding a good Catholic boy — under a chuppah, mind you — who 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 and stems from a Calvinist view tied to the notion of eternal salvation. The more specific term, “Protestant work ethic,” was coined by 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber to describe the Northern European culture that gave rise to capitalism.

The concept has few parallels with Jewish tradition. While there’s no commandment to work, there is, of course, the commandment to rest on the Sabbath.

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, and other Jewish sages stressed the need for balance between work and Torah study.

And what comes after work? Well, in my family, there’s no “after.” Retirement is just not in our DNA! Both my father and my brother worked until the day they died, and it wasn’t as if 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 nonstop. So, this workaholic trait is not gender specific. My mother, Dorothy, never stopped toiling either, although her labors largely went 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 aid 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 Las Vegas Sun newspaper. You should have seen the pride on her face when she received the phone call giving her the news.

And this trait to never quit is certainly not unique to my family. Today the number of older Americans staying in the workplace is growing. Some stay by economic necessity, but many by choice.

So while Protestants may have their work ethic, 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! Still, we all should remember to take a breather now and then. It couldn’t hurt, you know.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is an award-winning journalist who loves to make women and men "of a certain age" laugh, think and feel. In addition to The Matzo Chronicles, Karen is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. She can be reached at [email protected].