It was at a Shabbat table recently that someone mentioned the subject of messianic predictions. One such prophecy asserted that an auspicious time for the coming of the Messiah had been the year 1970. We thought back. He hadnt come. What did happen in that year?

That was about the time of the beginning of the baal teshuvah movement, I said, remembering my arrival in Crown Heights in 1974.

My guest bristled. What do you mean, movement, he said. I wasnt part of any movement. I did this on my own.

He was mollified when I changed the word to phenomenon. But his response brought to mind those old, inconclusive college discussions (Do great men shape history or vice versa? What kind of music would Mozart have written had he lived in the nineteenth century?) as well as the specter of those other movements more typically associated with that time period: the peace/leftist political movement and the counterculture.

These two streams, overlapping in time and in membership, to a large extent shaped the life of anyone growing up during the sixties and seventies. The turmoil of that time was like an unforeseen volcanic eruption whose ash drifted over the earth and affected the climate for years to come.

Many in the Jewish world look upon the counterculture years as a time of unbridled hedonism, lack of discipline and reckless destructiveness which led directly to the breakdown of family life and morality in America. But to those involved, the ideals which sought expression in anti-establishment behavior were real. They were a search for spirituality and aliveness, in opposition to what was perceived as materialism and metrification in American life. It was a desire for justice among individuals and among nations. Typical of the many threads of thought was the notion that through transformation of oneself and ones immediate environment one could transform all of society and thereby initiate a new age of moral perfection.

Based on such observations, one psychologist has pointed out that in the counterculture we were participants in a recreation of the great saga of personal and national redemption, for which Judaism, is the fundamental archetype. . . . The counterculture as a redemptive movement in Western history, however brief, took on the elements of all such redemptive movements, for which Judaism serves as the basic model.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many of us who marched on Washington in 1968 or converged in Woodstock in 1969 would, by 1979, be sitting in yeshivos and learning Torah. The generation of Bob Dylan may have rejected the Hebrew school teachers of their youth, but they could see themselves as the spiritual heirs of the Baal Shem Tov, of Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

I attended a liberal arts experiment in the late sixties (not to be confused with a college education in the usual sense) in which the student body consisted of less than two hundred juniors and seniors who had left other institutions for one reason or another. We were divided into two groups: those studying humanities and those studying social science. It became increasingly obvious that one group was primarily interested in leftist politics and the other in spiritual or artistic self-development. We called one another respectively the revolutionaries and the belly-button contemplators.

Several of the humanities people ended up as followers of Gurdjieff, an eclectic Russian mystic of earlier in this century whose disciples carried on his work in America. We lived in a community which stressed hard work and self-discovery. We disdained the title hippie and, under the direction of an elderly gentleman of Dutch origin, stayed away from drugs and other frivolities. We thought it odd and unaccountable that the local, rural population continued to refer to us as hippies nonetheless.

Looking back, it is easy to see that although we considered ourselves distinct from so many contemporary goings-on, we were part and parcel of our times and of the counterculture. Need I point out that many of us were Jewish? A characteristic of such movements has always been a disproportionate number of Jews among both the leadership and the rank and file. The radical political movements and the spiritual groups were both fueled by Jews who had lost all conscious ties with their heritage but whose passion for justice and for a form of personal and societal redemption can easily be traced to the culture that barely two generations back had performed mitzvot and believed in the coming of the Messiah.

It took a generation groomed to the idea of revolution to show the way back to tradition. Those who were accustomed to pointing the finger of logic at the inconsistencies of government and society were ready to point a finger as well at the bagel and lox Judaism and the lavish bar and bat mizvahs with which their parents seemed content.

A longing for absolutes infused the counterculture—if the government had faults, it was all bad; if a convention could not be justified then it could be totally abandoned. Middle class morality was attacked because it seemed to have no underpinning of compelling absolutism. If this were merely a convention, and if conventions are relative, then this convention too was as dispensable as last years fashions. The reasons given for getting married (specifically, to someone Jewish), settling down, and so forth were never good enough—because they werent good enough. No one told us we were supposed to get married because G‑d said we were supposed to.

Or maybe someone did, but neither speaker nor listener really believed it. Here our secular education had done its job. Atheism or uninformed agnosticism were the only acceptable theological positions open. But many of us who came of age in the time when everyone was being told to question authority ended up doing just that and eventually questioning the voice that said, There is no absolute authority.

Then came the spirituality of the East, bringing not moral absolutes but a kind of absolute, alternative reality that seemed the best way to understand and justify existence. This, we thought, was what was lacking in Western, American life. The older generation was shocked and disturbed. They could not have seen then that the counterculture itself was an eruption of the same forces that would later lead many of its advocates to seek an authentic experience of Judaism. The road to the ashram or to drugs could under the right circumstances become instead the road back to yiddishkeit; this is the paradox of our generation.

But there is a radical discontinuity between the counterculture and Judaism. It was quite by accident, wrote the psychologist, that many Jews seemed to stumble upon the true meaning of Judaism and began to recognize their religion as embodying many, if not most, of the 60s counterculture ideals. Judaism, however, is obviously more than the realization of a counterculture dream. And nothing happens by accident. We have to entertain the possibility that the counterculture itself was the result of something much broader.

It is hard to imagine the baal teshuvah movement, if we will call it that, taking place, say, in the fifties. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe told his Chasidim in the late 1950s to start preparing ways and means to deal with the young people who were searching for the truth and would soon arrive at their doorstep, a good many heads under black hats and sheitels must have turned to each other in bewilderment. What youth, searching for what? This was the time, remember, of fraternities, beach parties, and Sputnik, Postwar prosperity, television and suburbia were new. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, and Father Knew Best.

The Rebbes prescience here is indicative of events taking place on a plane and on a scale larger than any one persons experience. From this point of view, the baal teshuvah of the seventies and eighties was indeed part of a movement, not the less for having struggled quite individually and uniquely in his or her own life.

One of the most eloquent accounts of the spiritual odyssey of a baal teshuvah of that time was written by Dr. Miriam Grossman in her article, Antidote for the Existential Blues (Wellsprings, Dec/Jan 1989). She describes her need which began in childhood to understand a higher, or other, reality which was only hinted at in the tangible world. The meager Judaism to which she was exposed did not, of course, give her that understanding.

Dr. Grossman doesnt give the impression at all that her search was conducted in the company of like-minded friends or companions. If anything, it is the image of the solitary voyager setting out on an expedition with only lamps, guidebooks and perhaps a temporary guide, but without crew or fellow explorers. Yet her experience reflects a pattern in the life of so many others, differing in details but not in theme.

How did you become frum? How often has every baal teshuvah been asked the question? Our answers, as Dr. Grossman points out regarding herself, are almost always superficial, designed to provide a dollop of biographical information but telling nothing of the inner process that may span many stages of a persons life.

Finally, though, as fascinating as the full story may be, and as instructive to those who will find in them a point of departure for similar journeys, there is something strangely missing from all such stories. How do you get from there to here, really? Its hard to know. We went to such and such a place, met someone, perhaps a friend or a friend of a friend, or a rabbi, or even got off at the wrong train station. It was that tenuous. Sometimes even a guru told someone to go home to Judaism. Outrageous coincidences combined with an openness bred in the seventies toward things spiritual brought many of us to places we never thought wed find ourselves: yeshivahs, Jewish communities, Chasidic farbrengens, the Western Wall.

But the journey can be explained in great detail only up until the point of arrival. Even Miriam Grossman, when it comes to really explaining what happened, describes a series of visits to Crown Heights during which she grows more comfortable with the ideas and the people of Lubavitch. But to go from appreciating Shabbat, or even acknowledging G‑d, to incorporating into ones life the daily preoccupation with a system of mitzvot that are not always convenient, not always comfortable, and not necessarily comprehensible, involves a quantum leap that is not easy to explain. Like the image of the two faces of the goblet used in perception psychology, one can see things in one way or in another, but not both ways simultaneously. Either you perceive two heads facing one another or you perceive a wine glass. Either Judaism consists of antiquated superstitions or it embodies the wisdom of G‑d for all time. When does one perception give way to the other? How do you get from there to here?

I didnt need a guru, Dr. Grossman finally exclaims, I needed my grandmother! What could our grandmothers have told us? Would we have believed them? Perhaps they were there all along, guiding and pushing in the right direction. We are the sum not only of our own experience but of the genetic and cultural currents of many generations. To paraphrase Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, behind every person who becomes a baal teshuvah, there is a chain of events that stretches back through the eons. Each person has sixteen great-great-grandparents and 32 great-great-great grandparents. Going back ten generations, one has 1,024 ancestors. Perhaps, without them, one couldnt get from there to here at all. It was the Jewish neshamah, with a little help, asserting itself—poking out through years of intellectual debris and spiritual alienation, through layers of I Love Lucy and the Beatles, through all the baggage piled on top.

This brings to mind an analogy that many of us have heard many times: that each Jew is like an engraved letter in the Torah tablets, and not like a letter written on parchment which can be erased. Maybe the real story, and the reason it is one that cannot easily be told, is simply that someone blew away some dust and revealed what was already there. It is really the only baal teshuvah story that makes total sense and the only way to explain in the grand journey called the baal teshuvah movement how anyone ever got from there to here. Is it a movement? Did the Messiah come, almost, and did we almost feel it? All I know is that we needed our grandmother and, somehow, we found her.