BERLIN — Pudding Man is unmasked! He is none other than 25-year-old mobile app designer Naor Narkis.
And if you don’t know who pudding man is, you clearly don’t live in Israel or Germany.
Narkis – whose revealed his name for the first time to The Washington Post – sparked an uproar over the past three weeks after taking to the Internet to share his decision to leave behind the high cost of Tel Aviv and follow a host of young Israelis emigrating to cheap and shabby-chic Berlin. Despite the shadow of the Holocaust here, he encouraged more of his countrymen to do the same — anonymously mounting a Facebook page on Sept. 29 titled Olim Le Berlin. Even the name itself — playing on a Hebrew word commonly used to encourage immigration to Israel — stirred passions.
But his page really went viral – and became part of the national debate – after he posted a shopping receipt, including a local version of a beloved Israeli chocolate dessert known as Milky. He bragged of buying a far more ample portion than the typical serving size in Israel for roughly one-third the price. Soon, talk began of a “Milky Revolution” – or an outflow of young Israelis who could find economic solace in the symbolically important, and undeniably cheap, former capital of Nazi Germany.
Almost immediately, the Tel Aviv native became a folk hero to some, and an anti-Zionist villain to others. Those falling in the latter camp include a range of media commentators, politicians and Holocaust survivors who railed against the unknown pudding man. Israeli Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir told the Jerusalem Post: "I pity the Israelis who no longer remember the Holocaust and abandoned Israel for a pudding.”
In response to the "milky" debate, Israel's main discount supermarket chain, Rami Levy, put the chocolate puddings on sale, although in reality most other goods remain pricey.
In the summer of 2011, Israel saw the biggest protests it had ever witnessed when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to decry the high cost of living in their country. The mass demonstrations, which took issue with high housing prices and the cost of everyday consumer goods, threatened to down Netanyahu's government at the time. Since then, however, and despite promises by various leaders to tackle the high cost of living, little has changed on the ground.
In Germany, meanwhile, Narkis has become an anonymous phenom, with the Bild Tabloid declaring, "Because of chocolate pudding – a Berlin-revolution in Israel.” Spiegel Online declared Berlin “the pudding paradise!"
Sitting at a cafe in Berlin’s fashionable Mitte neighborhood Friday, Narkis, a slightly built Tel Aviv native who spent six years in the Israeli army, said he was initially shocked by the uproar. He received death threats via his Facebook account, he said, though in retrospect he does not "take them seriously." He said he decided to remain anonymous to keep the focus on his message – “Israel is too expensive for young people, and if that doesn’t change, it will lose a generation of us who will move away.” He was unmasking himself now, he said, to start promoting his message publicly.
Narkis arrived in Berlin five months ago, he said, after first trying his hand in Paris. It seemed initially like a logical choice. His mother’s parents immigrated to Israel from France, and he speaks fluent French. But, he said, besides the high cost of Paris, a virulent strain of anti-Semitism there drove him away after just a few months.
“There are people there at protests yelling 'Jews, out of France,’ ” he said.
By contrast, he said he found in Berlin an atmosphere wholly welcoming to Israelis.
“I was always curious about Germany because I wanted to understand a society that almost exterminated my people,” he said. But, he noted, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had recently led a major rally against anti-Semitism. And, on the streets of Berlin these days, he said, “you find the lowest level of anti-Semitism in Europe. I think young Germans and young Israelis share a lot in common. We both grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. And in that sense, we understand each other.”
But his decision was also about the two “Cs” — cheap and cool — that have made Berlin the “it city” for the untold legions of the young and hip. He is paying, he said, 425 euros ($535) a month for a room in a two-bedroom apartment, almost half the price he said he would pay for similar accommodations in Tel Aviv.
He denied speculation in Israel that he was working for a German real estate company. Rather, he said, he is supporting himself here as a freelance mobile app designer while also giving language classes. He said he speaks Hebrew, English, Arabic, German, French and Spanish.
He felt particularly bad, he said, by the castigation he’s received from Holocaust survivors: “I understand their feelings about Berlin, and I take them very seriously. And I also love my country, Israel.” But, he insisted, Israeli authorities need to wake up to the fact that the cost of living there is “forcing young people into exile.” He said his parents – his mother, of French Jewish stock, and his father, an Iraqi Jew – were supporting his crusade.
Although he said he intended to be in Berlin for a few years to make money before returning home, he is now debating leaving sooner.
“Maybe I'll come back to Israel and start something more” on this issue, he said. “I miss my parents, and they miss me.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.