11/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Maher, Roman Polanski and Barack Obama

It's not easy to escape religious roots. No one makes their own choice at birth regarding religion, yet ancestry and religious rules decide a lot. Jewish status is mostly matrilineal. Islam is patrilineal. When parents have different religions, confusion, complexity and conflicts often occur. Witness the interesting situations of Bill Maher, Roman Polanski and Barack Obama.

Bill Maher entertains me. He provokes thought and I like that. I TiVo Real Time on HBO. I've laughed at Maher's live act at the Paramount in Denver. Between three trips to the synagogue for Yom Kippur services, I watched Religulous on DVD. Sacrilegious, I know.

Bill Maher's mom Julie is Jewish. She hid that fact from her children during their Catholic upbringing. Bill's mom explained it this way in her son's movie, "Every family is dysfunctional." Bill Maher belittles religion, but oy vey -- what an interesting Jewish show Bill Maher had on HBO this High Holiday weekend.

The panel was three middle aged Jewish guys talking like they were naked in the Shvitz. I watched the re-emergence of an energized and laughing Elliot Spitzer, a serious and smart Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman, and Bill Maher who started the evening with "Jew jokes" in his monologue. A Jew can get away with that. Lots of Jews like to joke and ask provocative questions. Bill Maher is no different.

Why would Maher's mom steer clear of announcing her Jewishness? In that generation, in a western civilization, being Jewish was a death sentence for six million. It did not matter if you followed the faith or had mixed ancestry -- some Jewish blood was enough to get you killed.

Look at Roman Polanski's family. His parents were reportedly agnostic, but his father was a Polish Jew who married a Catholic. The Palonski family got devastated by the Nazis -- too much Jewish blood. Ghettos and concentration camps were part of the famous director's childhood culminating in the murder of his mother at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Roman Polanski committed statutory rape in 1977 at Jack Nicholson's home in Los Angeles. It is not speculation -- he admitted it in a California court before he fled to France to avoid sentencing. Among other things, Polanski left behind at the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese's Holy Cross Cemetery the interred remains of his slaughtered wife Sharon Tate and their posthumously-named son Paul Richard Polanski.

Yom Kippur is Judaism's most serious and important day; Jews are commanded to abstain from anything connected to work and atone for their sins and pray for forgiveness. The Day of Atonement began at sundown on Sept. 27 this year. On last Sunday's Kol Nidre evening (when Jews go to synagogue to renounce promises they will not keep), Roman Polanski was to be the recipient of the Golden Eye award at the Zurich Film Festival. He never made it. The Swiss government, Los Angeles law enforcement and perhaps G-d had other plans for Roman Polanski.

Here in Denver, we have billboards and a prominent radio personality questioning the birth status of President Barack Obama. Fewer than half of Republicans believe Obama was born in the United States. They refuse to accept the word of Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, who declared she has inspected the original vital records maintained on file by the Hawaii State Department of Health verifying Barrack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii and is a natural-born American citizen.

Stanley Ann Dunham came from Christian heritage but was agnostic. Our president's father was also apparently agnostic but had Islamic heritage. Obama bashers love to question every detail of his upbringing and heritage. So did Barack Obama, who came to terms with the mysteries of his youth in his famous memoir, Dreams from My Father. In that book, Barack Obama describes in detail his decision to become a Christian.

Something on the original birth certificate supposedly poses a problem for the president. Could it be that his mother was protecting him in some way, by claiming he was white or some other half-truth about his heritage? Could it be that baby Barack's religion was noted as Islam? Would this have precluded Obama's ascendency to our nation's leader? More ominously, would an indication of Islam at birth warrant a death sentence from Muslims who believe apostasy carries this consequence?

Here in Denver, many of us mourn the death of the Rocky Mountain News. Before it died, the Rocky's conservative editorial board had some sage suggestions for the birthers:

May we offer some advice? Get a life. It appears that the phenomenon known as Bush Derangement Syndrome - with unhinged left-wingers willing to believe any scurrilous rumor about the 43rd president - has a mirror image on the right.

Some claim that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and his birth certificate was faked. Others concede he was born in Hawaii but say he gave up his U.S. citizenship at age 6 when his mother, who married a citizen of Indonesia, moved the family to that nation.

It's difficult to believe rational adults can take these allegations seriously (and they have in fact been debunked). Obama served eight years in the Illinois legislature and most of one term in the U.S. Senate. If he were not a citizen, don't you think at least one of his campaign opponents would have found the proof to make that charge stick?

Even if the facts were murky, however, what possible point is there to raising them at this time? Does anyone seriously believe a court is going to try to bar from office the candidate chosen as president by a clear majority of voters? What do these zealots want, civil disorder?

Lineage and religion -- they are killer topics.