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From Flowers to Fortune: Sephardic families in Los Angeles' floriculture industry

by Max Modiano Daniel

Originally founded in 1919, the American Florist Exchange moved to 754 Wall Street in downtown Los Angeles in 1921. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Flower Market. 

One of the most common areas of employment for Sephardic men in the early decades of the community's existence in Los Angeles was in the flower trade. Sharing the business with other first and second generation immigrants like Ashkenazi Jews, Italians, Greeks and Japanese, Sephardim became the lead proprietors of key business ventures in both wholesale and retail arenas in the following decades. Flowers not only provided an ethnic and family trade, but enabled upward socioeconomic mobility and led Sephardic Jews outside of the confines of their Ladino-speaking downtown or South Los Angeles communities to the multiethnic flower business and the agricultural heartlands of rural Southern California. 

The flower business in Los Angeles has been run through two primary organized marketplaces: the Los Angeles Flower Market and the Southern California Flower Market, the latter founded and run originally by Japanese-American florists. Though Sephardi Jews were involved with both markets, they tended to gravitate towards the former, geared towards Anglo-Americans and European immigrants. For a time in the 1920s and 1930s, however, Greek immigrants - another group visibly active in the flower business in L.A.- would run a smaller marketplace that included many Sephardim.

Though many American-born Sephardim would abandon the flower businesses established by their immigrant parents, several maintained and grew those businesses into thriving businesses. Among these multi-generational family businesses were those of Jack Mayesh, Leon Moskatel and Joseph Alhanati.

Jack Mayesh (1899-1969) was born on Turkey's western coast in Kusadasi and immigrated to New York City in 1919, where he worked as a hot dog vendor. He moved to Los Angeles a decade later with his new wife, Flora Salmoni (born in Cos, Rhodes) and two young children, Joseph and Esther. The Mayeshs had four more children in Los Angeles, sons Myer, Solomon and Maurice and daughter Jewel. Mayesh's brother David also moved to Los Angeles and became the president of the L.A. Sephardic Benevolent Society in the mid 1960s.

In 1938, Mayesh founded a flower stand in the Los Angeles Flower Market on Wall Street in downtown Los Angeles, a business which his son Sol (Solomon) and later his grandson, Harry, operate today under the name HM Wholesale Plants and Pots. Mayesh's other son, Joseph, took over part of the wholesale business after Mayesh died in 1969 and later sold it to Roy Dahlson.

 

Despite his success in the flower business, Jack Mayesh is perhaps better known for his musical career: he was a singer and songwriter of Ladino-language music and briefly served as cantor for the Los Angeles Sephardic Community. In the 1940s, he even established a small record label, "Mayesh Phonograph Record Co.," based at his home at 925 W. 56th Street in the heart of Sephardi L.A. He recorded over a dozen 7" singles of his original Ladino lyrics set to familiar Sephardi, Turkish and Greek melodies, often accompanied by oudist or kanun players, including multi-instrumentalist Greek Theodore Kappas. 

Jack Mayesh (Jacob Maiche) U.S. Naturalization petition, ca. 1941.

Leon Moskatel (Yuda Moshcatel) was another leading Sephardic florist. Born in Rodosto, Turkey in 1902, he immigrated to the United States in 1920, where he met his wife Sadie (Sosye Jasne), who had immigrated from Kiev a decade earlier. In 1930, Moskatel - who had learned the flower trade from his brother George, who ran a flower shop in Glendale - opened a retail flower shop on Wall Street in downtown Los Angeles, just a few blocks north of the Los Angeles Flower Market. After WWII, he remade the business as a florist supply company, the Moskatel Company, which sold vases, florist foams, displays and other items at over thirty locations across the southwestern United States. Though much of the business was sold to the arts-and-crafts chain Michael's following Leon Moskatel's death, Moskatel's continues to operate under its original name in Los Angeles' Flower District today. 

Moskatel's in the late 1950s. Photo courtesy of American Florists' Exchange.

Joseph Alhanati was born in Turkey in 1888 and opened his first flower stand at 6th and Main. He later opened Parisian Florist on Sunset Boulevard, attracting celebrity clients like baseball star Joe DiMaggio, who placed a standing order to deliver roses three times a week to the grave of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe. Joseph's sons Louis and Max followed him into the business, and his grandchildren - Joe, Bob, and Susan - keep the business alive today. 

Several other Sephardi families were prominent in the local flower industry as well. Victor Hasson, who came to Los Angeles from Rhodes, began as a shoeshiner, then worked as a peddler, and then opened his own store. With the help of an investment from local banker G. Allan Hancock, developer of the Hancock Park neighborhood, Hasson opened Villa Florist at Wilshire and Catalina in 1932, which his son Ron later moved to Lafayette Park. Another Rhodesli family, that of Lou and Perry Hasson, operated Flowers by Pierre on Whittier Boulevard, often selling their flowers on freeway off-ramps. The five children of Obediah Hasson, also from Rhodes, all became involved in the flower business, and his son-in-law Raph Yack (born in Turkey), ran a flower stall in West Adams. 

The Yack family business, which was taken over by Raph's son Victor, grew to include stores in Pomona, Pasadena, Covina and Irvine and in 2004, Victor's son Ralph, opened a flower shipping company called FloralShip. Brothers Joseph and Robert Cohen, two of ten children of Ezra and Esther Cohen (born in Rhodes), also began their careers in the family florist business, using the profits to branch into real estate and eventually, to purchase the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel.

 

Bob Alhanati, 1987, in the Los Angeles Times. 

Sephardic Jews blossomed in the Los Angeles flower business, flowers not only supplying a source of income for newly arrived immigrants, but also providing a source of socioeconomic mobility to subsequent generations. The relationship between family, flowers, and business that began in the first decades of the 20th century endures to this day, reflecting the importance of the industry in facilitating the development and maintenance of Sephardi community life. 

Joseph Cohen at his stand at Barham and Forest Lawn Drive ca. 1958. Photo by Joe Cohen as appears in the Jewish Journal.