The rabbi, the Buddhist, the activist, the businesswoman, and the writer—Lily Koppel, author of The Red Leather Diary, reconnects with her childhood circle to explore the spiritual quest of a generation.
The Five of Us
Growing up, there were five of us, like a Ya-Ya Sisterhood of Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood known as the launching pad for the Obamas. Now in our late twenties, we’re scattered across the country. Some of us have drifted apart while others remain deeply connected, yet we’re all searching for meaning in our lives. I see us as examples of the spiritual path of a generation, and a testament to the power of friendship across time. We are the rabbi, the Buddhist, the activist, the businesswoman, and the writer.
On a visit home to Chicago, among my childhood belongings I find a now-broken heart pendant engraved B.F.F. (Best Friends Forever), just as we signed letters and notes. I also find a watercolor of the five of us, painted by my mom, an artist, in 1994. “You looked like a bouquet of girls in the painting,” she says. “At least I saw you that way, so intertwined, as if you were one multifaceted individual, like an Indian deity.”
I still dream about Lizzi Heydemann, Jill Spielfogel, Elizabeth Joynes, and Vanessa Svoboda, and I frequently reflect on the girls we were and the women we have become. Writing this story, I have an excuse to reconnect. So, I send out an email asking for reflection on what is important in life, and this sets off a domino effect of reminiscing.
“We were all really strong personalities that fed off each other,” says Jill. “We thought in a similar way, although we were different. When we were together, magic things started to happen.”
“It was like having different colors of the rainbow all in one room,” says Vanessa. “The things we did were really crazy—things we wouldn’t have done on our own. I think being together made us less afraid to take risks.”
Looking back to childhood is a meditation of sorts, a mining of the collective memory and heart. I see the five of us stringing beads procured from a patchouli-infused local curiosity shop and dunking Archway chocolate chip cookies in milk. We were making earrings to be sold at the annual Hyde Park Art Fair alongside our “homemade” (Country Time) lemonade, but all the while, says Lizzi, we were “psychoanalyzing” our parents and crushes, and exploring hopes and dreams.
Life has come to teach me that we shared a rare intimacy and an equally rare appreciation for each other. “We were completely present,” Lizzi says. “There was a connectedness. That feeling is what people spend their whole lives trying to achieve through meditation.”
Lizzi: The Rabbi
“The group went in five different directions,” observes Lizzi, now in her last year of rabbinical school in L.A., where she faces the range of challenges—spiritual as well as superficial—characteristic of our generation. Lizzi paints a picture of her life when she describes forging through religious texts while accompanying her sister to try on clothes on Melrose Avenue.
“Funky, she always had unique ideas and was compassionate,” is how Jill describes Lizzi, whose opinion she has always sought out. Elizabeth, on the other hand, notes Lizzi’s intellectual curiosity, wondering if embracing a spiritual path was, in part, a reaction against her lawyer and doctor parents.
The first time I encountered Lizzi and her big, almost cartoonish, inquisitive green eyes, we were in a sandbox. A New Year’s Eve baby, Lizzi rang in 1981, the year all of us were born. By nursery school, the story goes, she was reading the New York Times. After graduating from Stanford, she lived in Ojai, California (which makes me think of Ouija and the spirits the five of us once conjured). She learned Reiki and massage therapy. While vacationing in Thailand with her family in 2004, the tsunami struck before their eyes.
While her decision to become a rabbi came as a surprise to many of us, we agree Lizzi was always a nonconformist. I think back to Lizzi going through her own Age of Aquarius in fourth grade, adorning herself in rings and ankh pendants (the Egyptian “key of life”). In her family’s kitchen was a picture she had drawn of a whale coming up for air to say: “Save the humans!”
Lizzi emails me to say, “I have been on a search for meaning in life since I was a kid. There is more than one bible or Book of Mormon in my bedroom that I ordered off an infomercial for free religious books when I was no older than eight or nine. And I bought books from the Hare Krishna people in airports (when they were still allowed in airports, which makes me feel old to say). I have always been curious about how people discover and pursue life’s most important questions and answers. No wonder I dragged your and Jill’s asses all the way out to the Bahai temple on our bikes back in the day.… I freakin’ love religions.”
As we speak on the phone during a break from a Jewish retreat she is helping to lead, Lizzi describes a path I can relate to. “I’m on a spiritual quest back to what feels like home,” she tells me. “People are really hungry to feel a connectedness. They have a desire to get to know their pasts in order to learn how to live now and in the future.”
I saw Lizzi in New York last in April on her way to Baltimore to donate peripheral blood stem cells to a forty-year-old Jewish man with a rare form of leukemia, whose identity she didn’t know except that she was his only match. Her parents had reservations. Yet Lizzi, sitting on my couch sipping coffee with soymilk, said, “I find myself happy to be doing this mitzvah.”
I asked Lizzi whether she found the time the five of us spent together spiritual. She tells me she’ll think about it and call me back, and does. “Probably a lot of the time we spent together was,” she says. “We didn’t call it that and it wouldn’t look like that to an outsider, but sitting around the table talking and making jewelry, that feeling of things being new and interesting, being happy with myself, my family, and friends, was all very fulfilling.”
Later, she writes to elaborate: “I was trying to think of whether our collective friendship contributed in any way to my path as a rabbi, or whether there was a spiritual element to our friendship… and the answer is absolutely yes. There’s a prayer, which is all about being loved by an Abundant Love, who expresses that love by teaching us a way to live. What marked our friendship if not a sense of being loved unconditionally by one another, and together exploring a way to navigate the world?”
Jill: The Buddhist
Like Lizzi, Jill has been searching for answers since her late teens; however, unlike Lizzi, Jill isn’t drawn to the religion of her birth. “I always had a hard time relating to Judaism,” Jill says. “But I know, at heart, that Lizzi and I are both looking for the same thing—the right way to live.”
Jill recalls one conversation she had with Lizzi, who was experiencing doubt over whether she was ready to become a spiritual leader. “From a Buddhist perspective,” says Jill, “I told her, you’re never going to get to a perfect place but, whatever is in your path, allow it to make you more open.”
Jill Eden Spielfogel. Writing out her full name, I consider the meaning of Eden, reflecting that while growing up, she seemed to embody anything but the serenity of the legendary garden. Jill was the group’s comic relief.
“Jill struck me as carefree, but she has become more thoughtful and introspective,” says Vanessa. “I know she reached out to Buddhism during college, probably because of some insecurity, a need or pressure she felt in her own life. I never remember seeing those qualities present when she was younger and unconcerned with big picture questions.”
After two years at the University of Michigan, Jill transferred to Naropa University in Boulder, the liberal arts school founded by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. While studying contemplative psychology, Jill worked at Shambhala Mountain Center, which became her home base for exploring her inner universe. She is currently working as a project coordinator at the University of Illinois, where she earned her master’s in social work, while also volunteering at the Chicago Shambhala Meditation Center, where she has been the coordinator of Buddhist Studies programs for two years. Inspired during a recent meeting with Vanessa over a bottle of wine, Jill is now considering applying for a grant to create her own child welfare agency.
Whenever I fly home to Chicago, Jill and I meet. Her apartment is sparsely decorated with framed mandalas and weathered Tibetan prayer flags. A small meditation shrine is set on the floor next to a bookcase displaying several photos of Chögyam Trungpa in his horn-rimmed glasses.
“I could meditate for hours,” Jill tells me. Then, speaking more in depth about her practice, she reveals that the end of our childhood and adolescent friendships was a turning pointing in her own search for self. “I got thrown into the world where I didn’t have the support I was used to and I began doubting myself: Who am I now? What is my purpose?” she says.
In Buddhism, Jill is looking, like Lizzi, for a way home, for the place where it’s possible in adulthood for life to be always fresh and interesting, despite worries of “Am I going to make a living doing what I want to do?” and “Is someone going to marry me?” She says she tries to harness feelings of anxiety as much as possible, making fear productive by turning it into positive energy.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but life should be joyful, dynamic, exciting,” says Jill. “I do know that if I didn’t give into certain doubts and hesitations, I would have the world at my fingertips.”
Jill explains that she has taken certain vows within Vajrayana Buddhism and that over the summer she attended a retreat with her teacher, Sakyong Mipham. Without his blessing, she says, she could not fully receive her practice, which consists of reciting liturgies and using visualizations and mantras. “I am on a path and without him I would be very lost and confused,” Jill says matter-of-factly of her teacher.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“Enlightenment,” Jill says in all seriousness, yet the notion also causes her to erupt in laughter.
I want to tell her that she’s had it within her all along. Her Buddha-like laughter was always contagious.
Vanessa: The Businesswoman
“Vanessa was always very driven, so does it surprise me that she went to Harvard Business School?” Lizzi sighs, “Not at all!”
“I think about her on the basketball court,” adds Elizabeth, evoking a mental image of Vanessa with her lusciously thick, shiny brown hair and her athletic build, ferociously defending her turf.
Vanessa, always studious, smart, and an expert at keeping her cool with a hectic schedule of ballet, violin, and church, is now a principal of the Parthenon Group, a corporate consulting firm, and the only one of the five of us who is married and following a seemingly conventional path.
“Part of me is very driven and focused on somewhat superficial things—performing well at work, buying a house, making enough money to be able to do all of the things I want to do,” admits Vanessa, “As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become more focused on just enjoying the day-to-day pieces of my life that mean so much to me.”
Vanessa met “the love of her life,” her husband Spike, at Stanford, where they were both undergraduates. After living for the last three years in Boston, where Vanessa earned her MBA at Harvard and Spike his law degree, they just bought a condo in San Francisco and are talking about having kids.
Vanessa and I recently got the boys together—her Spike and Tom, my boyfriend of six years, also a writer, with whom I live in Manhattan.
When Vanessa tells me she eventually wants to own her own business, I think back to Cherry Blossom Beauty Supplies, a venture of ours in middle school, inspired by an article in one of her dad’s Fortune or Forbes magazines about the woman who created The Body Shop. Developing our early entrepreneurial skills, we repackaged cheap shampoo bought at Woolworth’s in little hotel bottles tied with ribbon, which we sold to our mothers’ friends. And speaking of beauty treatments, Vanessa emails me to say, “My family still makes fun of me for wrapping you in Saran Wrap and trying to carry you down our back porch!”
Thinking about her friendships, Vanessa observes, “While I tend to think that our nation and world as a whole is becoming more and more secular, I see many of my friends turning to spirituality, which I think is a reflection of people’s need to find a purpose in life and some kind of structure. As we get older and think more about confronting our own mortality, there is the feeling of wanting to make the right choices—choices that we can look back on in old age and feel good about.”
The most difficult part is to know what those choices should be.
“I think the difficulty increases as we have more freedom in terms of what is acceptable, appropriate, right, and this freedom increases every day,” Vanessa says. “In the ’50s, it was assumed that women would get married and raise a family. Now that it has become acceptable for women to have their own careers and not get married, it can be hard for women to know what the right path is.”
Elizabeth: The Activist
For years, the person I was closest to in our group was Elizabeth, whom I met in the reading corner on my first day of kindergarten. Our families lived in the same building and we played together almost every day after school, stuck in my dollhouse like two big Alices, or riding up and down in the elevator, trailing dress-up clothes.
Now we both live in New York, and while we are only a short subway ride away from each other, she is the only one of the group with whom I have lost touch. Still, I have wonderful memories of her. Once, when were eight, we sat on the floor next to my four-poster brass bed, leaning on my hot pink beanbag, and somehow our conversation led to the confession that each of us felt somehow special.
“Chosen,” I offered.
“Yeah,” said Elizabeth, brightening.
During college, we studied abroad together in England, traveled in Italy, and took trips to visit her aunt’s old antebellum mansion in Kentucky, where we wrote our names in an ancient layer of dust on a mirror in the haunted attic. Whenever we wanted to communicate something for no ears but our own, we used the code “chosen.”
While writing this article I reconnected with Elizabeth, who spent the summer working for the American Civil Liberties Union and was about to start her third year of law school at Fordham University. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she had spent four years living in Quito, Ecuador, where she worked for indigenous rights and environmental conservation and participated in social and political organizing. Latin America was a proving ground for Elizabeth’s political passions. “It changed my whole view of the world and of who I wanted to be,” she says. For the first time, “I experienced happiness in a different, much more profound way. I saw that people with so much less were so much happier, through family and their own work, not through a career set on making money.”
Though her mom urged her to come home so she could begin building a career, Elizabeth says, “I stayed for four years because I was at peace there, and I was terrified that if I came home I was going to lose that. I finally came home when the peace had become part of me, a place in my mind.”
Unlike many of her law school classmates who are champing at the bit to practice in the corporate world, her focus is public interest law. Last year, she took a fieldwork trip to Cambodia with the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law. She contributed to a project researching forced eviction and resettlement in Cambodia, interviewing families who were the victims of forced eviction by the government and trapped in inhabitable living conditions.
Me: The Writer
“You’ve always been a writer,” Vanessa reminds me. “You always had lots of ideas flowing through your little head,” says Jill.
The summer before our freshman year of college, Jill, Lizzi, and I got together for a road trip to Starved Rock, Illinois, where we camped and hiked, surrounded by cornfields. The day it rained, I bought an old Smith Corona typewriter at a garage sale and we spent an afternoon typing our collective story at the local BeeHive Restaurant until the waitress asked us to leave because the sound of the keys was irritating the other customers.
Our friendship was strongest in middle school, and while we grew apart during high school with the arrival of a new cast of characters, most of us rekindled our friendship in our early twenties. But it is the early time the five of us spent together that continues to live on and inform the way we see ourselves and our capacity as individuals to shape our destinies and change the world.
“One thing that has struck me as lasting is our creativity,” says Lizzi. “We were very crafty. It was clear which of us were more artistically inclined, but nobody ever said, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ It boosted our confidence that we could do something beautiful in the world.”
“I was thinking it would be fun if we had a reunion,” confesses Vanessa. When I tell her that, at first, I hadn’t heard back from everyone for this story, she hastens to add, “But I don’t know…”
Our relationships over the years have not always been blissful. Secret jealousies and hurt feelings go back years. But, slowly, everyone came together, each one’s memories setting off the next.
Drifting off to sleep after a day of writing, I remember how Lizzi would make us utter the incantation “Open Sesame” before entering a wooded area in her backyard. Now seeking out our spiritual beginnings, searching for seeds sown when we were young, I think that perhaps the treasure I am after is in a cave, the mouth of which is sealed by magic and memories.
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