From Russia With Love

Irina (left) and Lori (1976)

Lori Lippitz: 56, married, 1 child, founder of The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and The Klezmer Music Foundation

Best friend of 3 years: Irina Geinisman, died ... murdered during a robbery in 1978 at age 16

“In America, and in our culture, female platonic friendships are underrated, grossly, massively underrated. My friend Irina taught me a profound truth that I had not known, especially as a teenager, when she said, ‘Your boyfriends will come and go, but your girlfriends will be there for you forever.’ ”

How did you meet?

The entire story of my friendship with Irina is tainted by the tragedy associated with it, but it is not the sum of the friendship—a brief friendship that defined who I am more than any other.

Irina and I met on November 22, 1974 when I was a junior at Evanston Township High School. I was 15 and she was a very emotionally mature 13. She and her parents had immigrated to the United States the day before. My Russian teacher introduced her to our class. She was a shy, gray-eyed girl with brown-blonde hair. I was a solid C student with poor Russian grammar, so I was surprised when our teacher asked me if I would socialize with Irina out of class. Did she sense, despite my struggles with the language, that Irina and I would click?  

When we met, Irina smiled shyly, and I was won over right away. I spoke my few words of Russian and we made a date to tour town. I never concentrated so hard in my life listening to her. I felt as if giant waves of Russian were crashing over my head. I would catch a word or phrase and then try to figure out the rest from context. What I couldn’t understand from her words, I understood from her eyes, which were flashing and intense. She had been separated from her home, her school, and her friends, so she was relieved and happy to have a girlfriend to share her feelings with, and to about her new, strange home. Irina started to pick up English almost right away. Soon, we were speaking an amalgam of Russian and English. She accepted and looked up to me, and I adored and admired her.

What was the friendship like?

In Russian, people go by diminutives. Hers was Ira (pronounced “EE-ra”). After school or in the summer, I would walk the four blocks to her house. Her mother, Tamara (who she called by her pet name, “Musya”), would cook and the house would be drenched in the aroma of fried potatoes, mushrooms and onions. Musya would feed us, and then we’d go into Ira’s room to sit on the rug and talk. I can still hear her laughter, which was light and musical. Sometimes, she would pick up a book of Russian poetry and read aloud. Ira came out of the Soviet system in which you memorize poems by heart, and she had volumes of poems at the tip of her tongue —romantic verse by classic poets like Pushkin and modern poets like Ahmatova—that she would read with passion and expression. Without understanding every word, I could get the sense of it all through her. Sometimes we’d go walking. The Russians are huge walkers. I’d traveled to the USSR, and seen how the streets are alive at night with whole families walking and talking. One day we started walking — Irina telling me about her life in Russia and we were completely absorbed. We ended up at Broadway and Peterson in Chicago, about 13 miles from her home in Evanston!

I didn’t have many friends in High School. I was one of those kids who doodled and daydreamed. I just recently saw the musical Hairspray, and in it there’s a song with the chorus, “She’s got cooties!” Well, in grade school, I was the Cootie Girl. On the playground, the other kids would yell, “She’s got cooties!” and everyone would run in the opposite direction screaming. I was a very serious young person, thoughtful and sad and chronically sleep deprived because my hearing is sensitive and my dad would watch TV until the wee hours. When I was in 4th grade, my parents sent me to a special class that was supposed to be for helping kids who weren’t connecting socially. That class turned out to have a mix of autistic and sociopathic kids in it, and the experience was terrifying. When I got to high school, I became friends with the political leftists, the hippies and the stoners. I was not popular, but Irina didn’t get the memo. As far as she was concerned, I was a like spirit who was emotionally attuned to her, who listened, shared, and tried to help her acclimate to a new country and culture. In her I found a soulmate who genuinely loved and respected me.

Lori’s daughter Kayla with Irina’s mom Musya

In America, female platonic friendships are grossly, massively underrated. Irina taught me a profound truth that I had not known, especially as a teenager, when she said, “Your boyfriends will come and go, but your girlfriends will be there for you forever.” That lesson has stayed with me all my life, like so much of her prescient wisdom. Maybe marriages wouldn’t be so overburdened, with the spouse needing to be all things to the other spouse (the supporter, romantic interest, listener, partner, helpmate, etc.), if female friendships were more respected and appreciated. Many women marry and give up their friendships, and then expect their husband to jump into that breach. I married late. I was 38 when I got married and had my daughter, Kayla Renee, when I was just shy of 40. The name Renee is for Irina, because it means rebirth.

Describe how the friendship ended.

On April 28, 1978, my parents came to see me at the University of Michigan. I was a sophomore and it was about three-and-a-half years after Irina and I met. They told me that the day before Irina had been waiting for the El-train at the Dempster Street station. A couple of kids had been trolling around, looking to snatch purses. She struggled, they stabbed her to death and left her there on the platform. She had about $3 in her purse.

What is her legacy? That’s the hard part of dying at 16. I’m sure that her legacy has got to be this bubbling passion of love she had for life, an infectious joie de vivre with which she touched so many of the people she knew and the friends she made here in America. It’s as if she knew that she was on borrowed time, and she just went out and did everything she could to live a full life. There are ripples of awfulness that her death caused to wash over the lives of many, many people, and it’s something that always stays in my mind whenever I hear about anyone’s tragedy — how the news will move on, but that sorrow will last a lifetime. But she was this brilliant, beautiful girl who fate conspired to make my friend and change my life. She was a deep, poetic, graceful young woman with an infectious laugh and soulful eyes. Her life was far more than the news stories. I have dedicated myself to organizing a concert series in Irina’s memory — a concert featuring young Russian-American kids like her, talented and special young people who will hear her name and think of the girl they never knew. And when people google her, they will see something other than the horrible news stories.

How did you cope with her loss?

After Irina died, a lot of my coping was done through art. I drew a charcoal portrait. I sculpted a weeping woman out of a red wax candle and painted it black. But the one that stays in my mind is two clay figurines: a young, beautiful woman lays at rest, and over her, an old woman is bent over in mourning. I realized that if I lived a full span of years, my friend would always be young while I became old. Eventually an old woman would stoop over the grave of a young girl that had once been her contemporary.

Coping with Irina’s loss is a process that continues. No one was treating kids with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in those days. Her death still haunts my life. It has burdened my relationship with my own child because I can be overwrought with anxiety. Once, when we were in Whole Foods and she wandered away from me, I panicked and made them do an Adam alert (a lockdown). But I think watching Irina’s mother rise up from the black depths of depression to a kind of a normal has helped me to realize that, as a teacher once told me, “You go on—limping, but you go on.”

Irina’s stepfather and mother divorced, so Musya has been alone all these years. She has no family here, but she has put her life together, and except for aches and pains, she would say she has a good life. I am her power of attorney, and I take care of her when she has medical emergencies and I have helped her with getting services from social service agencies so that she can live independently.

A positive lesson that came from this loss is that as busy as you get — and I tend to work obsessively — you always have to make time for your friends. Make time for friends, make time for family, make time for things that can’t be checked off a list or monetized, because they won’t be there forever, and these relationships are what really count. If I want to test that theory, sometimes I’ll say, “What if, God forbid, I had a heart attack or a stroke right now — how would I feel about the way I left things?” Would I be satisfied with the quality time I’d spent with friends and family, or would I regret the solitary time I’d obsessed over work, and feel sorry for leaving so many boxes of papers and things to sort out?

One of the things that’s caused me guilt is Irina’s last visit to see me. She came to visit me at school, and although I spent time with her, I also said, “Hey I’ve got these exams and this homework,” and left her for hours at a time. On the last evening we were together, I let a potential boyfriend come over. I didn’t just send him away, and I could see that this hurt her. I wish I could rewrite that visit with the wisdom I have now.

I’ve had very important friendships in my life since then, and I haven’t been a loner. In fact, my place in the community here is very visible. I’m a bandleader and singer and the head of a not-for-profit that I founded. I’ve learned to value people more and to cherish friends. Even though we only had three-and-a-half years together, she was the first person in my life that gave me unconditional love. That can’t be underestimated — it can save a life. I gave it back to her, too, but for me it was the oxygen I needed, and it probably helped me orient myself on an upward path despite the many bumps along the way.

I was not one to believe in things like ESP before I met Irina. Not believing her and her experience is another terrible regret. Early on, Irina told me was that she was psychic. I discovered that, especially with her, I have some of these moments, too. When she came here, she told me that in the Soviet Union she had been in the hospital with hepatitis in a large shared room. There was another family there, and one of them was a gypsy from Romania. The gypsy read her palm and told her, “You are going to die when you’re 16. Your life line stops there and it stops abruptly.” So from that point on, she knew, and she shared this secret with me.  She would talk about it, and I would dismiss it. When she was 16 and came to visit me in Michigan, I didn’t know that, for her, it was her goodbye visit. She told me that she had dreams that she was lying on a wooden platform, and her eyes were so sad. I said, “Stop with this mishegas!” [Yiddish for craziness]. Really, I could not bear hearing it.

Rewind to when I was 13. One night, while staying over at my grandmother’s house, I had an horrifying nightmare in which a young African native wielding a knife kills me in slow motion. That dream was of a different caliber than any dream I had had or have had since, so vivid that even though I had it at the age of 13, I can still remember it in every detail.

Fast-forward to a few weeks after Irina visited me in Michigan. It was five days before she died, during the Passover holiday. I was staying overnight at a friend’s house after the first seder when I woke up from a horrible nightmare. I’d dreamed of a very beautiful girl with long blonde hair, which I was combing lovingly. The girl left and went into a garden, and I heard a scream. Someone told me she was dead, and I thought, “I’ve killed her.” Then, I am standing in a vast room with stars in the vaulted ceiling. I am staring at these stars and knowing that she is gone.

I wrote the dream down at the time, and once again, it was of a different quality and emotional intensity than other dreams. I tried to tell everyone I saw that I’d had this dream, but no one seemed to understand how it had affected me. I didn’t know what it was, but I just knew that it was the most painful thing I’d ever dreamt.

When I was at Irina’s funeral, I looked up at the ceiling of the Northwestern University chapel, and there were all those stars. I said, “I’ve seen this, I’ve seen all of this, I’ve felt all of this.”  The dream came rushing back to me. I went to talk to my father and showed him the diary entry and told him about the dream. I asked him, how can this be? And my father, who was an extremely wise, rational, scientifically-minded person, just said, “You know, being rational doesn’t mean you understand everything. There are just things we don’t understand.”

One of the greatest effects this has had on me is I understand that there are things I don’t comprehend, there are people whose experiences I can’t fathom, there are truths that are incomprehensible. There are meanings to life that I cannot see more than a corner of, and there are many, many times that I completely misconstrue reality because I don’t stand above the world looking down. This realization has been very revealing and humbling to me.


Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?

Here is a song I wrote in 1981. Although I’m a professional singer, I’ve never sung my own songs in public. It describes what I learned from loss. It is also dedicated to Irina because, on her last visit, she asked me to sing her a certain Hebrew song (Eli Eli), but I wasn’t in the mood. It was a song that expressed her desire to believe in eternity no matter what happens to life itself. Here is the song I wrote in 1981 after becoming a better listener:



by Lori Lippitz                                                                 

What if you lived without glory or fame,

The whole world went by without learning your name?

   Would you still come over?

   We could just walk together–

   I’ll always have the time for you.

What if my plans all fall through?

None of my sure intuitions come true?

    Will you still come over,

   We could just walk together–

   I’ll always have the time for you.

Childhood friend, you know all my dreams,

Pack them away with your old, dusty things,

   And then please come over,

   We could just talk together–

   I’ll always have the time for you.

Yet, on we go, hopeful–we can’t say why–

Nobody knows how he’ll live or he’ll die…

Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Lori, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!