The Yiddishkeit of Say Anything, the Quintessential 2000s Emo Band

Say Anything wasn’t a Jewish rock band. They weren’t “the phone sex song band,” either. And they also weren’t *not* those things.

It was 2007, it was humid, and I spent rest hours lying on the bottom bunk making boondoggles out of plastic neon cords. At summer camp in the Ozarks, I was still wearing a glittery shirt from Justice with dinosaurs on it — but my bunkmates Rachel and Mimi had breasts and tight denim miniskirts, and they liked to walk around with an iPod Nano singing the one Say Anything song people know if they only know one Say Anything song: “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too.” They found it hilarious to belt out the chorus: “I called her on the phone and she touched herself; I laughed myself to sleep.” But there was one line they sang louder: “When she described her underwear, I forgot all the rules the rabbi taught me in the old shul.”

No counselor dared explain to a group of bat mitzvah-aged girls why the song was inappropriate — which, of course, they knew — and so they sang it almost every day. But I only vaguely knew what was inappropriate, or why inappropriate things were hilarious, and so after camp ended, I would spend hours on a now-defunct website called learning every Say Anything song I could find, hoping this would make me a cool girl, too.

It didn’t. The next summer, it turned out no one really cared about my new favorite band, much less remembered the words to “the phone sex song.” But what it did do was introduce me to Say Anything at exactly the right time to witness the September MySpace release of “Shiksa (Girlfriend),” a song epitomizing the pithy Jewish references and witty, slightly outrageous Say Anything lyrics I have never gotten enough of screaming inside my car: “Like the yin and the yang and the afikomen, you’re the omen.”

I mean, come on!!

A quintessential 2000s emo band that got more experimental as time went on, Say Anything and its frontman Max Bemis leaned into their Jewish roots to varying degrees over the years. But for me, they will always remind me of those years of entering high school, not entirely sure I belonged at summer camp but somehow belonging there more than anywhere else. (It’s only fitting — some of Bemis and bandmates’ first performances happened at the California Camp Ramah.) All this is to say: I first understood and loved Say Anything by the bits of Yiddishkeit I found myself stumbling upon in their songs.

A dorm-room-recorded (now remastered) EP you could find with enough searching is titled “Menorah / Majora.” Their first “real” record, “…Is a Real Boy,” has fan-favorite “Alive With the Glory of Love,” a love anthem for Bemis’ Holocaust survivor grandparents. And though perhaps some found it distasteful for such a song to begin, “When I watch you, want to do you right where you’re standing,” I cannot tell you how heart-poundingly validating it felt to hear my voice drowned out by a basement of emo kids shouting “Treblinka is alive with the glory of love” at my first Say Anything concert. Leaving that concert is a strange memory now — I was drenched in sweat and feeling holy the way only standing against the front rail at a great concert can make you feel, thinking this must be what immersing in a mikveh (ritual bath) would be like.

When the new album came out in October of 2007, “In Defense of the Genre” (the genre being — you guessed it — emo), it seemed as if I could find an allusion to Judaism in nearly every song. Sure, there was an entire track titled “Died a Jew,” Bemis admitting even then he “chase[d his] milk with ham.” But there were also mentions of “secrets of the tribe” (“This is Fucking Ecstasy”), references to blood on the doors of firstborns (“I Used to Have a Heart”), and complaints about being “trapped between babushkas on a plane” (“No Soul”). This was a band unapologetically writing lyrics for me. Looking for Jewish references in Say Anything songs was like looking for other Jews at my high school, elated with the sense of “that’s one of ours.” Even better, it felt like summer camp: The Jewishness so permeated the music, it didn’t need to stand out.

Truthfully, the next few albums did cause me some confusion. In the 2009 self-titled album’s “Hate Everyone,” Bemis said he was “down with JC.” But the Jewish references didn’t go away, and — despite identifying as Christian when the 2014 “Hebrews” came out — the personal meaning of his Judaism clearly didn’t either.

Featuring Judaica-inspired cover art, the aim of “Hebrews” seemed a response to something he said in an Austin Chronicle interview: “A lot of what people sing about isn’t conducive to singing about the experience of being a young Jewish person.” But it wasn’t an album about being Jewish, he clarified on the band’s website: “It’s about understanding where my neuroses come from. [Are they] from society, my parents or from the dawn of man?” And was that not what we’d explored every summer during our two-to-eight weeks away from home?

In “Hebrews,” Say Anything evolved away from defending the genre, intentionally opting for strings backing tracks and absolutely no guitar. The album is Bemis at his edgiest and most self-critical, identifying as a “strung-out, overweight, Jewish guy” (“Six Six Six”). But in the album’s title track, a bridge with The Front Bottoms’ Brian Sella gets so Jewish, most lyric sites just use Hebrew letters instead of attempting to transliterate. “I’m a waste of my bar mitzvah,” they sing. “And all of my chaim I’ve been sad. / Oy! A Schlemiel! A Schlimazel! / Buried underneath the spires of Babel. / I want to go back home.”

That’s not actually what I think is the most Jewish lyric of “Hebrews.” Instead, it’s when Bemis sings of his “need to self-preserve, to pander and perform.” That is the Jewish experience he wanted someone to sing about. He’s writing about diasporic assimilation just as much as he is his disillusionment with the confines of emo, and although the lyrics of the album have, admittedly, not all aged well — dear God, do I think this bit is clever.

Say Anything’s last two albums didn’t broadcast “Jewish” quite like the older music, but the influence didn’t disappear. You can find another self-reference to “the Jew they kept in chains” (“Jiminy”), and a mention of “cracked commandments” (“Sediment”). Even the title of 2016’s highly underrated “I Don’t Think It Is” harkens back to Jewish summer camp: “It’s something that we would say specifically to authority figures to negate whatever they would say,” Bemis has explained. “‘Clean the bunk.’ I don’t think it is ‘clean the bunk,’ in the most annoying voice.”

In the band-ending nine-page 2018 manifesto, “A Goodbye Summation,” Bemis definitively declared himself to be “a queer, Jewish, Christian skeptic pseudo-anarchist with a belief in metaphysics,” someone just as multi-faceted as … well, more of my Jewish friends these days than not. Even in acknowledging the turn to some elements of Christianity that became evident in the band’s later years, he gives a nod to his Judaism and its influence on his life: “Jews are taught to think freely,” he writes. “So I went with whatever I wanted instead of what I was told to.” He knows it’s confusing and says he’s “kind of NOT sorry at all.” With Say Anything, I’d expect no less.

Say Anything wasn’t a Jewish rock band. They weren’t “the phone sex song band,” either. And they also weren’t not those things. For me, though, they were the builder of a world through CDs-on-repeat where I never had to pander or perform. I screamed words the rest of the audience couldn’t spell until my throat burned. I bought the merch with hamsas on it, and I am still looking for one particular hoodie with “Say Anything” spelled out in the flames of a hanukkiyah. I lost myself in all the “Hebraic neuroses” Max never shied away from, and in all their anthems singing of a certain kind of teenagehood. Let’s face it: There couldn’t be much better to represent the angst of Jewish summer camp life than self-deprecating but somehow still optimistic lyrics sung by an unabashedly sweaty creative who was constantly trying out a new sound.

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Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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