Act I. Brayne, a wealthy 40-year-old woman, sits outside her house, arguing with her brother Sholem about her marriage plans for her son Shmendrik. Sholem reminds her that their father’s dying wish was that they were to have children of the opposite sex, the children were to marry one another. But Brayne, longing for a more prestigious match, plans to marry Shmendrik to Rivke, daughter of the gabay (synagogue trustee), Reb Yankev, a formerly wealthy man who has lost his fortune. Sholem goes, and Shakhne the matchmaker enters, followed a moment later by Shmendrik, a foolish, deeply religious and superstitious fifteen-year-old. Shakhne tells Shmendrik that he has brought the boy a bride, prompting Shmendrik to search Shakhne’s pockets for her. Shakhne takes Shmendrik to visit her. Sholem returns, followed by peasants, who bring food and sing a song in celebration of Shmendrik’s engagement.
Act II. The simple home of Reb Yankev, who is trying to comfort his daughter Rivke. No happier with the engagement than she is, he says that it must be done to save them from total poverty. When he goes off to make wedding preparations, she sings longingly for the good times that have gone, her dead mother, and her beloved Dovid. Shakhne and Shmendrik arrive as she is singing the last verse, and their first encounter with one another leads both Shmendrik and Rivke to burst into tears. Brayne arrives and takes Shmendrik away, and then Dovid arrives and says he has made enough money to support her and her father. She says it’s too late: she is getting married that night. Sholem enters and tells Rivke that he is sorry, but her Shmendrik is destined for his daughter, and they will have to call off the wedding. He finds her less disappointed than he had expected, and Dovid comes up with a plan to switch the brides during the celebration, so Shmendrik will marry Sholem’s daughter before anyone realizes what has happened. Sholem and Rivke go. Shmendrik enters and mocks Dovid’s Germanized appearance. Dovid smacks him in the face and leaves. Kabbalists come in and bless Shmendrik. As all are bowing their heads, Shmendrik breaks away and puts a kabbalist’s finger in his mouth, shouts, “Mommy, we mustn’t look,” and covers her face and his with his hands.
Act III. The wedding. During the festivities leading up to the service, Sholem’s daughter is put in Rivke’s place. She is then married to Shmendrik, and when he lifts the veil, he cries, “Mommy, Mommy, I’ve got another girl!” Brayne accuses Sholem of having played a trick. He confesses, but appeals to the crowd, who say that he has done the right thing. Brayne asks Shmendrik which girl he wants; when he says he wants both, she coos over him and congratulates him. Dovid leads the chorus in singing about the pitfalls of arranged marriages.