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In 1905, poor Jewish milkman Tevye struggles to feed his family in the impoverished Russian village of Anatevka. Despite political unrest and anti-Semitism, Tevye maintains his religious traditions and devotion to God, with whom he carries on a constant dialogue. One day, Yente, the village matchmaker, informs Tevye's wife Golde that widower Lazar Wolf, a middle-aged, wealthy butcher, has asked to marry Tzeitel, the oldest of their five daughters. Quick-witted Hodel and bookish Chava, Tevye's second and third daughters, long to be matched, but Tzeitel explains that without a dowry or family connections, they will probably be married to older, unattractive men. Meanwhile, Tevye fantasizes about being rich and, good-humoredly, asks God if being wealthy "would spoil some vast, eternal plan." Later, Tevye learns from his neighbors that Jews living in other areas are being evicted from their homes. As the men spout ineffective curses at the authorities, Perchik, a student from Kiev, approaches, chides them for their inaction and predicts that the rich must soon share their wealth. Upon learning that Perchik teaches for a living, Tevye, who appreciates learned men, offers to pay him food in exchange for lessons for his daughters. At home, Tzeitel urges the timid tailor Motel, the childhood friend with whom she is in love, to ask Tevye for permission to marry her, but he is waiting until he can afford to buy a sewing machine to prove to Tevye that he is worthy. During the Sabbath prayers, Tevye and Golde pray that their daughters will become good wives and mothers. Afterward, sent by Golde, Tevye visits Lazar and their conversation becomes increasingly confused, until Tevye realizes that Lazar wants to marry Tzeitel, not buy his cow. Tevye thinks hard about Lazar's proposal because although Lazar is wealthy, he much older than Tzeitel, but he concludes that Tzeitel would be safe from hunger. After he agrees to the match, the two go out to drink and celebrate with the other Jewish men. Cossacks, moved by their joy, make a toast, and for a short time, Jews and Gentiles dance together. Afterward, as the drunken Tevye heads home, the constable, a bigoted man who nonetheless likes Tevye, warns that his superior has ordered "a little unofficial demonstration" against the Jews in the village. Continuing on his way, Tevye is approached by the Fiddler, a figment of his imagination, who begins to play for him and the two dance, despite Tevye's fears of the impending pogram. The next day, Tevye suffers a hangover and sleeps late, while Perchik teaches Tevye's youngest daughters, Bielke and Schprintze, an unorthodox interpretation of the story of Jacob. When Hodel later confronts him about his "advanced" thinking, Perchik belittles her blind adherence to tradition. He shows her how boys and girls now dance together, but they become tongue-tied upon realizing their mutual attraction. When Tevye revives, he announces Tzeitel's engagement and is surprised when she tearfully begs him to call off the match. Motel and Tzeitel tell Tevye that they have pledged to marry each other, an "unheard of" break with tradition, which insults Tevye, as tradition dictates that the father arrange the marriage. He accuses Motel of being poor, but Motel summons the courage to say that "even a poor tailor deserves some happiness." Impressed, Tevye reconsiders and gives them permission to wed and then wonders how to explain his illogical decision to Golde. Chava is walking alone in the countryside when she is taunted by four Russian boys, until a fifth one, Fyedka, orders them to stop. Like Chava, Fyedka loves books and offers to lend her one of his, so that they can discuss it together. That night, Tevye pretends to awaken from a nightmare, which he then describes vividly to Golde: In his dream, Grandmother Tzeitel tells him that her namesake should marry the tailor. Then Fruma Sarah, Lazar's shrewish deceased wife, emerges from the grave and jealously threatens to strangle Tzeitel in her sleep if she marries Lazar. Disturbed by Tevye's dream, Golde agrees that Tzeitel should marry Motel. Later, the constable is ordered by his superior to carry out the pogroms. During the wedding ceremony of Motel and Tzeitel, Tevye and Golde note how fast the time has gone by. During the following celebration, the villagers start to quarrel over Tzeitel marrying Motel rather than Lazar, but Perchik interrupts and points out that Motel and Tzeitel were in love. Then, taking down the cord separating men from women and thus breaking with tradition, he calls to Hodel to dance with him. Soon, Tevye orders Golde to dance with him and many startled villagers are lured by the joyfulness of the dancing, which is abruptly halted when the constable and his men break up the wedding, and then continue to vandalize other Jewish homes. Tevye orders his distraught family to clean up, but wonders why God has allowed this to happen. However, he does not lose his faith and later reports to Him that Motel and Tzeitel are too happy to "know how miserable they are." Perchik tells Hodel that he must leave for Kiev, where Jews and Gentiles are working together to fight the restrictions of the Tsarist government. Before leaving, he asks her a "political question," which she discovers is his way of proposing to her. She agrees to marry him, but when they announce their intention to Tevye, he refuses his permission. They explain that Perchik plans to send for her when he can, and that they wish his blessing, not his permission. Aghast, Tevye worries that his allowing Tzeitel's unarranged marriage has had bigger consequences. Although to him love is just "a new style," he ponders that once their old ways were new, and realizes that Hodel and Perchik were "matched" by God. He gives both his permission and blessing, but later must try to explain himself to Golde. Remembering back to his own wedding day, when his and Golde's parents said that they would learn to love each other, Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. Although embarrassed, they admit to loving each other and find comfort in the realization. In Kiev, Perchik is arrested for his activism and sent to a Siberian workcamp. When Hodel decides to go to him, Tevye reluctantly walks her to the train stop. There she explains her sadness at leaving home, but feels she must be with Perchik, whose work she compares to that of Abraham, Joseph and Moses. She promises to be married according to their faith and Tevye dryly concedes that probably "a rabbi or two was also arrested." When Motel, now a father, buys his sewing machine, the neighbors come to admire it. Chava tries to broach the subject of Fyedka with Tevye, but he forbids her to speak of the Gentile. Later, Golde learns from the priest that Chava and Fyedka eloped. Stunned, Tevye orders Golde, as tradition demands, to consider Chava dead to them. Alone, he remembers Chava as a child and, in his imagination, sees his three daughters dancing together before they are enticed away by their suitors. He imagines that Chava pauses as the Fiddler plays for her, but then leaves with Fyedka. Coming out of his reverie, he realizes she is standing before him, asking for acceptance. Although he tries, he realizes that to do so requires that he deny everything he believes in and, his heart breaking, sends her away. An edict from St. Petersburg evicting the Jews from Anatevka allows them three days to sell their belongings and leave. Despite the hardships there, the Jews are devastated, but begin packing, some unsure of their destination. Chava and Fyedka are also leaving, as they refuse to stay where neighbors mistreat one another. When Chava visits, Tevye refuses to talk to her, but when Tzeitel rebels and bids her goodbye, he tells her, under his breath, to say, "God be with you," allowing the family to reclaim her. Pulling the cart loaded with their possessions, Tevye and his family join the march of exiled Jews. At a crossroad, the rabbi performs a last service before the neighbors disperse. Teyve and his family plod onward, but, when he hears the Fiddler playing a tune, Tevye motions for him to follow.