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With the motherland close at heart, Russian culture lives on in Israel

Oded Balilty / AP

Russian-speaking Israelis dance to Russian pop beats at the Soho nightclub in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2012. The club caters to the Russian-speaking immigrant community, featuring hired dancers and extravagant decorations rarely seen in informal Israel.

Oded Balilty / AP

Russian-speaking immigrants drink vodka during a Russian folk music festival at the Gan HaShlosha national park near the northern Israeli Town of Beit Shean on May 11, 2012. About 2,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union attended the two-day festival, singing Russian standards, barbecuing and drinking vodka.

By Daniel Estrin, Oded Balilty, The Associated Press

In parts of Israel, it's hard to find a single Hebrew sign in a sea of Cyrillic. Shopkeepers address customers in Russian, and groceries are amply stocked with non-kosher pork, red caviar and rows of vodka. Russian pop beats thump at bars, and in some homes, people will as likely be hunched over a chessboard as a computer keyboard.

The Soviet Union crumbled 20 years ago, and in the aftermath, more than 1 million of its citizens took advantage of Jewish roots to flee that vast territory for the sliver of land along the Mediterranean that is the Jewish state. By virtue of their sheer numbers in a country of 8 million people and their tenacity in clinging to elements of their old way of life, these immigrants have transformed Israel.

Israel has the world's third-largest Russian-speaking community outside the former Soviet Union, after the U.S. and Germany. Russian-speaking emigres may not conjure up the same recognition as the country's black-hatted Orthodox Jews or gun-toting soldiers, but they are just as ubiquitous — maintaining habits more suited to the "old country" than their adopted Mideast homeland, like wild mushroom foraging or winter dips in the Mediterranean, the closest substitute to frigid Siberian waters. Continue reading.

Editor's note: The Associated Press made these images available to NBC News on Dec. 30.

Oded Balilty / AP

Two immigrants from the Ural region of the former Soviet Union rinse off after bathing in the Mediterranean Sea in the early morning, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 4, 2012. Many Soviet immigrants gather at the beach for a traditional winter dip, the closest substitute to the freezing waters of the former Soviet Union.

Oded Balilty / AP

Alexandra Bahman, who emigrated to Israel from Moldova in 2006, sits in her bedroom with her cat on July. 6, 2012. Bahman left Moldova with the carpet and photos that now decorate her bedroom walls, in Ashdod, Israel. Ashdod is heavily populated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Oded Balilty / AP

A choir practices in a government-funded elderly care facility catering to Russian-speaking immigrants in Ashdod, southern Israel, on Nov. 4, 2012. The choir sings Russian standards and Israeli folk songs translated into Russian.

Oded Balilty / AP

Elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union play chess in a public park in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Chess is a popular sport in Israel's Russian-speaking community, and the world's second-best chess master, Belarusian-born Boris Gelfand, lives in Israel on Nov. 15, 2012 . Israel has one of the world's largest Russian-speaking communities outside the former Soviet Union, and the immigrants' tenacious clinging to their old way of life has transformed the Jewish state.

Oded Balilty / AP

Gymnasts from Russian-speaking immigrant families warm up at a gymnastics competition organized for Israel's immigrant community, in the southern resort city of Eilat on Nov. 9, 2012. Most of Israel's Olympic gymnasts are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Oded Balilty / AP

An employee of the Mizra pork factory poses with a pig's head in a refrigerated warehouse in Kibbutz Mizra, northern Israel, on Dec. 6, 2012. The million-strong Soviet immigrant community has increased customer demand for pork in the country, a non-kosher food rarely eaten by Israeli Jews.

Oded Balilty / AP

Russian-speaking immigrants gather for a Russian folk music festival at the Gan HaShlosha national park near the northern Israeli Town of Beit Shean on May. 11, 2012. About 2,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union attended the two-day festival, singing Russian standards, barbecuing and drinking vodka.

View more photos by AP photographer Oded Balilty.

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